Grim Internet Realities



topic_internet-freedomThe Internet has been trumpeted for facilitating the Arab Spring and vilified for making stars of kittens — alternately praised and dismissed as either a manifestation of true democracy or a mass distraction that’s dumbing democracy down.

But as Robert McChesney writes in his excellent new book Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy, both sides in this debate have had a lot less to say about the fundamental “importance of capitalism in shaping … and domesticating the Internet”:

Most assessments of the Internet fail to ground it in political economy … Both camps, with a few exceptions, have a single, deep, and often fatal flaw that severely compromises the value of their work. That flaw, simply put, is ignorance about really existing capitalism and an underappreciation of how capitalism dominates social life. . . . Both camps miss the way capitalism defines our times and sets the terms for understanding not only the Internet, but most everything else of a social nature, including politics, in our society.

McChesney’s baseline argument is that while the technology that drives the Internet is revolutionary, it nevertheless serves those who master it … and that right now its masters are massive profit-driven hegemons like Google and Facebook — transnational corporations that treat the free exchange of information as a commodity rather than as the lifeblood of democracy.

The issues raised by McChesney are sure to be taken up by the folks at Free Press, the influential progressive media reform group McChesney co-founded in 2003 with John Nichols and Josh Silver, when they convene their annual conference in Denver to tap the synergistic power of cyber-activists committed to keeping the Internet open and free. The National Conference for Media Reform runs from April 5-7, 2013.

Featured guests will include McChesney, a frequent collaborator of ours here at MEF; Silver, who is now CEO of United Republic; Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!; co-founder Eli Pariser, most recently of Upworthy; and media critic Norman Solomon, who collaborated with MEF on the documentary War Made Easy.

If you plan on attending (and you should) make sure you check out MEF Executive Director Sut Jhally and Nation magazine sports editor Dave Zirin (Not Just a Game) at a screening of MEF’s new video Race, Power & American Sports.

This conference comes at a critical juncture, a moment when corporate interests are poised to complete their hijacking of one of our last great commons. As Solomon noted in a recent review of McChesney’s book, the stakes couldn’t be higher:

The huge imbalance of digital power now afflicting the Internet is a crucial subset of what afflicts the entirety of economic relations and political power in the United States. We have a profound, far-reaching fight on our hands, at a crossroads leading toward democracy or corporate monopoly. The future of humanity is at stake.