I've discussed before how the internet is structured as an anti-commons, as well I have also made known my thoughts on how internet posts should be classified in my essay on speech vs. product. In this recent article Evgeny Morozov barely recognizes this obvious truth, that the internet is not designed for civic or citizen "presence." Even at the end of the article Morozov seemingly fails to grasp that the internet is really just a collection privately held "sites" from Amazon to Facebook and everything in between. Yet this is very much what how the internet is actually structured; from single page web-domains to high concentrations of interlinked corporate webpages the internet was never designed to be, part of a civic commons.
Only once we grasp these distinction might we address censorship and its meaning. There is a strong moral, anti-corporate narrative that runs through many technology developers. Their position is understandable, but I do not wish to get drawn into an endless relativistic or moral discussion. I am attempting to step back a far as possible from the situation and address my comments through the lens of technological infrastructure, and the idea that the owner of an internet domain qualifies as a "have-some."
So how exactly do we define censorship in terms of an Anti-commons. Let's review.
Commons: A commons is any sort of resource that is shared amongst the members of a community.
The most ready, and most overused, example of a commons is a village green. Here the green is shared amongst all the villagers for the benefit of all. In terms of modern technology we have no space equivalent to a village green. As enticing as it might be to call the internet as a whole a village green this is simply not the case. The internet functions like a periodical or magazine with each site having its own editing or moderation team.
Tragedy of the Commons: The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen.
In our example this occurs when the farmers in their interest of maintaining the herds overuse the village green and thus completely deplete the commons of grass.
Tragedy of the Anti-Commons: This over-regulation or over sharing of property rights. The term was coined during the cold war to describe a coordination breakdown where the existence of numerous rights holders frustrates achieving a socially desirable outcome.
Anti-Commons: I use the term on its own as a noun to describe the structure of the internet. In which, just as in Tragedy of the Anti-commons, a property rights holder holds sway over one domain and any other person who would assert "rights" inside of that domain may only do so with the approval of that rights holder.
The Anti-common example that gets discussed here involves technologists and their own website polices. These rights holders maintain their own standards of publishing for those not affiliated with that site. This in my view is a somewhat similar view of this same standard in relation to a large company and its associated publically released work products.
In an anti-commons, You can post comments that you like to those editors or owners but those editors have final say over whether that comment is published on the site. Each website, just as each company, controls the standards for what it publishes.
Corporate Censorship: The issue of corporate censorship seems to be a growing issue on the internet. It perhaps should come as little surprise that as technology is itself an outgrowth of massive corporate investment that public concerns might turn to the idea that these corporations might prevent communication and expression over that infrastructure.
The Wikipedia definition is rather bland and is hopelessly broad in scope, Corporate censorship is censorship by corporations, the sanctioning of speech by spokespersons, employees, and business associates by threat of monetary loss, loss of employment, or loss of access to the marketplace.
Technically this definition could be understood as classifying anti-trust behavior as "censorship." That is just the most coherent part of the definition. It also treats the employee, employer relationship as non-binding.
There a numerous cases that proponents of corporate censorship like to point out: the recent examples of the BART cell shutdown and Blackberry shutdown during the London protest come most readily to mind. Yet there are no constitutional grounds for these cases in the context of the first amendment. It is here that we arrive at the hard truth that the purchase of technology and its use is subject to some constraint placed on us by the manufacturer. In other words infrastructure, unless owned and built by a government, is not likely to fall into understood definition of a commons.
I want to leave aside also the debate over the idea of nationalizing (and thus making it public property) such infrastructure.
So to this end this is not an issue of "censorship" so much as an issue between consumers or users, and the companies that supply the platform supporting such expression. After all in the great scheme of things is it really a right to have corporate content delivered like the electricity that runs the platform itself?
There is also another argument here for government intervention via net neutrality, I will not be addressing this here in an already lengthy rant as "corporate censorship" per se doesn't strike me as the right way to frame debates over throttling.
In my mind at this point we enter the crux of the issue. I reject the notion of corporate censorship on the same grounds as I reject the idea that access to: internet, cable, or electricity is a "right" in the same terms as actual fundamental rights such as freedom, or the pursuit of happiness.
Freedom or the pursuit of happiness are intangible ideas that cannot be bought or sold or commoditized. Internet, Cable, and even Electricity are services that may be rendered or revoked. I suspect many a modern American will view access to electricity, or cable as a fundamental right; however, I reject this idea. Electricity, roads, cars and all the like are technological outgrowths of our society. These are services that there use burdens society with a cost, this is more commonly thought of in terms of "pollution." This in turn requires the intermediary regulation of the government as you can likely draw a straight line between someone's wall socket and the source of pollution that provides the power to that wall socket.
What is published by a company is a private and not a public matter. Thus charges of corporate censorship tend to sound hyperbolic. I categorically believe that there is no such thing as "corporate" censorship. Such a view necessarily would entail an admission by the ("corporate") citizen that they vest a sort of governing responsibility into their relationship with said corporation. To my mind censorship is only categorically possible via an a socially vested governing body, namely "The" government.
To illustrate my point, we do not call it "censorship" when a publisher lets a book or movie that is not selling slide into "out-of-print" status. This is perfectly understood in terms of market supply and demand, and it is not a matter for a body politic to demand a publisher reprint a title. Such republishing decisions are business decisions made on the grounds of the market, and customer demand and not via a body politic. It is a great mistake of the technologists to conflate the two ideas. A good example is that of an anti-corporate protester organizing via a corporate tool known as twitter. Thus protesters despite speaking out against such corporations continue to use the products produced by these corporations.
In this way the claims of corporate censorship sound hollow. To the technologists any book (or now any content) that does not have the status of "in-print" could fit the definition of corporate censorship. This is a troubled and entitled viewpoint. Especially as these same technologists exercise a similar level of private control over the content (and products) of their own sites. In a sense this isn't so much a matter of law as it is a matter of control over one's domain. Thus we find ourselves back to the have-lot vs. the have some
So in the end what what the technologists are advocating is really a sort of radical egalitarian notion (in many ways embodied by Julien Assange or Occupy Wall Street's General Assemblies) that any work product produced by any person has no commodity or status of its own accord. Such a stance is really just a posture taken by the have-some vs the have-lot. This rhetorical stance also belies their own actions, these groups simply want you to believe that there is no true commodity value in online content. They reject the notion even as their actions show us that they recognize this commodity and use it as their leverage against the older institutions they seek to replace.
Now after rejecting the idea of corporate censorship, the next argument I want to address is the idea that the internet promotes the "intellectual commons" and that somehow information published on the internet, by virtue of this accessibility is part of a shared commons (see, The Toll Road) . This is the space where the Creative Commons takes root, but keep in mind that releasing something into the creative commons is a choice made by the creator and it doesn't entail full release into the unfettered public domain.
This blog is itself published under a creative commons licence, as is my choice. In this manner I willfully loosen part of my original lawful copyright. By virtue of my licence choice I grant more control to others, yet this does not in and of itself make the products of my work part of "the public domain" so vaunted by technologists.
In the end however, we realize that all of that clash over the public domain is really over the ownership of words and methods. The ideas themselves aren't subject to such harsh possibilities.
So is there any hope of resolution? I'm not holding out much hope. I think what we are observing is one institution being replaced by another. The older "mainstream" institutions are slowly being overtaken by "new" media institutions and the process is just now gathering steam. The current economic environment has just made this process, that was already underway, more urgent, and apparently more personal as well. Either way, cloaked in an illegible rhetoric we are seeing new media slowly gaining supremacy.