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.

New be­he­moths

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


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