Disrecognized Space

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‘Free’ internet: linking attention and profit

When the internet passed from being an obscure academic and military project to a popular means of communication it was often presented in a utopian manner as a revolution against capitalism and political restraint. As the internet has matured it has become evident that the internet is far from such a construct. As it has developed today it is no more free than the offline world and, though its freedoms and commercialising occur in different ways, it is equally constrained by power, politics and capitalism so that a ‘free’ internet is only true in a very limited sense.
Barlow (1996) famously announced in his “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” that cyberspace would be a place magically separated from the realities of the real world, a different space where none of the power constructs or economic rules would apply:
Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.
While such utopian pronouncements can still be heard today, dissenting voices have also spoken up. Evgeny Morozov, for example, observes (Levy, 2011) that the internet is often forced into a Western narrative that predicates it as a liberating mechanism, ignoring that it also has dimensions that interact with society and power at large. Rather than ‘simplistic narratives’ he wants us to consider the internet as a social phenomenon, not just a technology. Today’s internet, for example, is the home of cybercrime and spam (Morozov, 2011).
Just how ‘free’ the internet is or isn’t first requires that the word ‘free’ be unpacked. It is a loaded word not just in an economic sense, but one that people have fought and died over. ‘Free’ on the internet encompasses two broad definitions which are often confused or ignored, most famously expressed in the dictum “Free as in thought, not free as in beer” associated with the Free Software Foundation (2010). By this definition, free “is a matter of liberty, not price”, echoing Barlow’s politically optimistic outlook.
Even in the limited sense, the internet is far from free (of a price) since, as Froomkin (2003, p. 858) points out, the very act of connecting to the internet requires the payment of a fee to utilise the services of an ISP (though limited unpaid access is available through places such as cafes and libraries in some countries). The internet is seen differently by users as opposed to businesses. Corporations, as Mosco (2005, p. 62) points out, see the internet as a resource to commodify. Relationships, data and advertising become the important new commodities to be exploited (Van Diejck & Nieborg, 2009, p. 866).
Ghosh (2005) explains how, in a knowledge economy, knowledge becomes a form of economic goods. Even a frivolous posting to a newsgroup can have a worth. Such transactions accumulate economic value, though that value is not explicit as real world price tags are. Ghosh calls it “a perpetual auction with ideas instead of money”. Nonetheless, this reputation value can be converted to a real world value, as the discussion below shows.
While classical Marxist theory equated capital value with the means of production, the internet emphasises human and (particularly) social capital with its focus on relationships and knowledge (Hanappe, 2005, p. 202). Goldhaber (1997) contrasts this new economy with the earlier feudal system, again noting that attention is a defining factor, arguing that this will lead to money continually decreasing in importance – something which is not evident today. Gleick (2011) states that 96% of Google’s revenue derives from advertising, in an economy where attention is the valuable product. Attention here is clearly financially significant, and this can be seen as part of the neo-Gramscian extension of capitalism to a global perspective (Simpson, 2004 , p. 53).
Free content on the internet is also problematic. Wikipedia, for example, is the product of the unpaid labour of numerous individuals and has become the classic example of the success of such a model. Such a workforce evokes for Nicholas Carr (quoted by Dutton (2008)) an emerging world where work does not have to be paid for, or is paid only a tiny amount, leading to a chasm between the ‘digital elite’ and the ‘global pool’ in a capitalist paradise. Nicholas Carr has promoted the concept of ‘digital sharecroppers’ as a metaphor for people not owning their digital products. He gives the example of Bebo (Carr, 2008) being sold for $850 million. Clearly, much of this value was a result of the use and content provided by unpaid members of the site. Digital sharecropping is “an incredibly efficient mechanism” (Carr, 2006) for utilising unpaid labour to generate profits for the few. Carr explains that this works because the ‘sharecroppers’ function in the attention economy, but their work meshes into the cash economy that businesses operate in.
Whether this situation will continue or not is open to discussion. Arvidsson et al (2008, p. 16) announce that capitalism will lose its legitimacy and be marginalised, though this appears to be a slow process if it is happening. They postulate three scenarios (Avidsson et al, 2008, p. 17), the second of which seems to be what is happening today. In this scenario the attention economy workers (what they term the ‘ethical economy’) function in a legally controlled, disenfranchised workforce that provides the privileged the source of their profits – what the authors call ‘informational feudalism’.
Thus ‘free’ content (or ‘free’ software or ‘free’ social networking sites) may be free for an individual consumer, but the costs and profits are simply displaced elsewhere, and this becomes easier every time the network increases. Social networking sites (such as Facebook) require users to trade privacy for access (Morozov, 2011). Data mining is a lucrative business, and the data gained constitutes a transaction with very real financial implications. Morozov calls for us to decide whether the internet should be a “private mall or a public square” (of course it could be both, and probably is).
Some of the drive to provide ‘free’ services comes from user expectations on the internet partly led by the early utopian visions, but also as Anderson (2008) explains because improving technology, and its rapidly declining costs, leads to bandwidth and data becoming almost free. Anderson argues that the difference between the very small cost and zero can be disregarded. Companies can still make sizable profits by accumulating tiny profits over many transactions. Anderson’s argument is tempered somewhat when he describes one way of making money as the ‘freemium’ model: a basic, ‘free’ service, but more options for those who pay. Clearly, one service may be ‘free’ (or have displaced costs) but the other is not. Nor does he address the issue of unpaid labour. You can get ‘free’ pornography, he notes, by solving a captcha. Perhaps not much work for an individual, but spread out over thousands (or millions) of such tasks, companies are simply replacing the sweatshop for a networked version. Furthermore, Anderson’s ‘almost’ zero cost curve is asymptotic – it never actually reaches zero and claiming that it is so close it doesn’t matter is, again, relative only to one person. Interestingly part of Anderson’s argument rests on how even Rupert Murdoch is making his papers free online: a move that is now being reversed as traditional newspapers feel their business model threatened and which is being led by Murdoch placing paywalls around various newspaper content (Reinventing the newspaper, 2011). This move is being further extended in the US to include television shows in an effort to use micropayments to generate profits (Clark, 2011). There is a shifting boundary between free and not-free that is being continually contested.
It can be seen, then, that the internet may be ‘free’ in a constrained context: a user, for example, can download and use software for free. This represents the gift economy, but this only displaces the costs so they become obscure or invisible (ignoring the fact that downloading itself also often has a very real cost per megabyte). Veale (2005) explains how the reciprocity normally part of a gift exchange can, on the internet, be deferred or displaced elsewhere. There are various benefits to this, such as self-esteem, which are part of the attention economy, but this self-contained ecosystem is no longer separable from the business economy. Indeed, as Veale also notes, the gift economy often includes monetary rewards itself as donations or tips. Firefox, another ‘free’ success story, is free to download but its use generates profits through arrangements with search providers such as Google (Mozilla 2009 financial FAQ, 2010).
Gifts, however, are also a form of expressing power and creating obligations (Bergquist & Ljungberg, 2001, p. 310). On the internet this is modified (Bergquist & Ljungberg, 2001, p. 313) since the giver and receiver may be unknown to one another. The nature of gifting is altered, but the creation of power relationships and obligations do not vanish because of this, particularly in terms of reputation (Bergquist & Ljungberg, 2001, p. 314), which is another name for the attention economy already discussed.
Attention, reputation, and commodification are all aspects of political power. The nature of ‘free’ on the internet cannot be separated from the play of political power. Indeed, Scott (2009, p. 43) conceptualises capitalism as a multilevel construct that articulates a ‘political vision’ which it is inseparable from (Scott, 2009, p.61). This is achieved largely through regulatory frameworks (Scott, 2009, p. 54) but many actors constitute the political basis of capitalism at various levels.
It can therefore be seen that the internet is not more or less ‘free’ than the offline world. What it does do, however, is make transactions which would be of no value offline become valuable online through network effects that can displace costs, disseminate ‘sharecropping’, and transform an attention economy to a financial economy whenever users meet businesses.References
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