The Net's downside
A new book argues that the Internet promotes monopoly and authoritarianism
THE INTERNET IS NOT THE ANSWER Andrew Keen Atlantic Monthly Press | 2885 pages | ` 800
Othis year, the Supreme Court, in the Shreya N MARCH 24 Singhal versus Union of India case, quashed Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, as unconstitutional. The Section had attained infamy after the arrest of two women by the Mumbai police in November 2012 who took to the Net to express their displeasure at a bandh called in the wake of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s death. Since then, several arrests have been made for the most benign dissemination of online content. These arrests were aimed at checking even the most harmless cases of dissent.
Andrew Keen’s The Internet Is Not the Answer does not deal with this Supreme Court verdict. In fact, it was published a few months before the verdict. What is significant, however, is that the Internet is fast becoming a catalyst for several kinds of dissent .This role has exposed the Internet to a range of censorship.
Keen takes note of this. But he has his doubts about the social media’s role in organising protests and being a catalyst for change—the Occupy movement or the Arab Spring. “It may have helped undermine old autocracies, but now it’s descending into chaos and warring tribes just like on the ground. We’ve thrown out the information gatekeepers and what we’ve got is propaganda.” During the July 2014 Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he points out, Israel had employed 400 students to run Facebook pages in five languages, while Hamas’ military wing, al-Qassam, was busy tweeting its lines to thousands of its followers.
The book, with a clearly giveaway title, takes on the Net on technological and economic grounds. Keen summons some astounding data to back his case. Google, which now handles more than 3.5 billion searches daily, was valued at more than us $400 billion last year—five times more than General Motors, which employs nearly four times more. Google’s two founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, are worth US $30 billion. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, head of the world’s second-biggest Internet site, is
sitting on a similar personal pile. At US $190 billion in July last year, his company was worth more than Coca Cola and Disney. Even more recent online ventures are raking in the moolah. Uber, a five-year-old startup, was valued last year at more than US $18 billion —roughly the same as Hertz and Avis combined.
The problem, Keen believes, lies in the winner-take-all characteristic of the digital economy.The number of photographers’ jobs in the us has fallen by 43 per cent, he notes; the number of newspaper editorial jobs by 27 per cent. One chapter of the book is devoted to Eastman Kodak, a company that in 1989— the year Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web—was worth US $31 billion and employed 145,000 people. In 2012, it filed for bankruptcy. Just the previous year, the number of images hosted by Facebook (a business whose model is the monetisation of friendship and whose product is, essentially, us and our lives) was around 500 billion. Meanwhile, 55,000 Kodak pensioners are out of luck.
So, is there a contradiction between an avenue that lends itself to a commons of opinion and one that has an inbuilt tendency towards monopolisation? Keen does not answer the question.The greatest strength of the book is also its shortcoming. Keen takes on the biggies of the Net—Google, Amazon, Facebook —and does an incredible job of that. But he willy-nilly equates the Internet with them. What about a growing community of people who see the Internet as the new commons? What about avenues such as Creative Commons?
To be fair, Keen does attempt an answer in his section on the social media. Not much on social media is truly social, he argues. “We personalise,” he says. “So, you know, it’s kind of social, but in a very personalised way… One of the most troubling things for me about social media is the lack of diversity. It’s like going to some expensive US college. You only meet people like yourself.” Then there’s the whole privacy issue: “The Internet is becoming structurally parochial, like a village. We’re all clustering in these tighter and tighter little ideological and cultural networks. There’s no serendipity, no stumbling upon random people or random ideas. Everything is pre-ordained; you’re served with what they know will suit you.”
The Internet has fostered no creativity, Keen argues. It might have given an avenue to dissent, but has also provided a platform for authoritarianism. That brings me to the point I started this review.If the authoritarians could have controlled the Net simply by roping in their kangaroo armies of writers to put forward their views, what was the need for censoring? What was the need for draconian measures like Section 66A? Why did the Indian government recently ask YouTube to take off the documentary, India’s Daughters, on grounds that it hurt the country’s image?
Amitabh Raha teaches political science in Calcutta University
SORIT / CSE