(Soros and) a vision of the internet as paradise regained?
How did the world lose ‘its’ internet (as an open forum and public utility)? How did, why, and who are the ‘dark forces’ which have been taking it over (and how can it be re-claimed)? And what is the link between this and how George Soros just donated another US$18 billion to promote a future global ‘open society’?
In the beginning… the internet revolution promised to transform humanity for good along the lines of the Whole Earth Catalog, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Rheingold’s ‘virtual community’ (e.g. 1) – and as Tim Berners-Lee (one of its founders) has consistently advocated (2). However, like in the Bible it wasn’t long before dark forces of malevolence as well as of greed, power and self-destruction actively tried to corrupt this initial virtual Eden. The positive vision was further epitomized by the ‘open source’ movement to make the internet (and ICTs) effectively free and ubiquitous as well as solve social problems with new technologies (3). In contrast, as well as the terrorists and pedophiles hiding on the ‘dark web’, there were the predictable corporate forces to control, to profit, to exclude and to seduce in the name of ‘fast bucks’ and new age narcissism (e.g. 4). Following on earlier backlash to Microsoft’s past efforts to gain world domination – only to be pulled into lined by a US anti-trust ruling for being a monopoly and engaging in anti-competitive practices – others have emerged with questionable power and influence such that ‘big business’ and ‘big tech’ are now often synonymous (5).
George Soros’s (6) proclamations last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos about the non-sustainable internet-based rorts of the most dominant corporations and ‘major tech titans’ today (7) perhaps represents a focus on ‘return to origins’. This is in light of how corporate forces have effectively sought to take over not only the internet but the global economy, society and human consciousness more widely – such that even early founders of companies like Facebook and Google are now ‘waking up’, ‘changing sides’, etc., to assist the fightback about dangerous and damaging directions taken (e.g. 8). Tech ‘giants’ like Mark Zuckerberg and FB seem to be currently at a cross-roads which has massive implications for the world. The key emerging criticism criticisms are that because ‘big tech’ is only interested in making money it promotes narcissistic, addictive and/or merely scandalous uses of the internet (in the name of ‘entertainment’), has no interest in a substantive distinction between misinformation and information as a mode of genuine social networking, and generally ignoring public and global responsibilities of accountability for policies and practices (e.g. 9) – not just trivializing notions of truth, beauty and justice but actively promoting ‘us vs. them’ divisions within communities whilst indirectly and sometimes directly encouraging the crooks and sinister forces/figures. However, we think that this (10) – the encouragement of passive consumers rather than active thinkers and constructive networking in the public/global interest – all suggests there is something much deeper at stake.
Indeed, we agree with Soros that there are perhaps several levels of how the internet is fast becoming effectively distorted, manipulated and even corrupted (i.e. a massive set of scams) as a new medium of human interaction. On the surface level, the most concerning (i.e. monopolizing and/or anti-competitive) ‘scam’ lies in how Google and Facebook now take on more than half the advertising income of the internet (11) However, even this disturbing fact does not really do justice to the extent of how internet advertising has taken over from newspapers and television – who also have increasingly had to advertise on the internet to survive, but because of secretive and continually changing algorithms of Google, Facebook and others are so often wasting their money in terms of a mixture of deception and a failure of traditional (and indeed all) advertising models. For instance, a Google insider has acknowledged that (following the ‘false news’ manipulations of the 2016 US elections) its algorithms are: (a) more accurately not just ‘misinformation engines’, and (b) also recognised to have been long designed to promote the kind of senstationalism and titillation (i.e. ‘ edgy and hateful content (that) is engaging’) that, for instance, also feeds ‘inflammatory religious or supremacist’ sentiments (12).
Also, as we discussed in a recent post (13), the change of FB’s algorithm to respond to the ‘false news’ accusation has been to effectively give up on and even in future to obstruct as well as omit any function of news as information sharing (the new policy focus on ‘meaningful interactions’ a selective focus many would see as self-defeating and non-sustainable into the future). However, just as Google advertisers recently woke up to how their ads were being mixed up with offensive content, so too many individual (e.g. 14) as well as commercial users of Facebook (e.g. 15) are now also waking up to how their ‘loss of reach’ effectively amounts to an apparently and/or or possibly intentional deception and rip-off in terms of expectations for some and advertising for others. As with Google and other big tech companies, this emerging privatization (i.e. business) takeover of the internet is typified by the focus on getting ‘views’ and ‘like’ for their own sake rather than really building communities, sharing information and the internet fulfilling its true future role as a focus of global conscience and consciousness [as we wrote about this over 20 years ago (15)]
In similar fashion perhaps, George Soros’s World Economic Forum talk in Davos was reported as follows (17 – Cf also 18): ‘Facebook and Google effectively control over half of all internet advertising revenue,” the 87-year-old told diners during a speech. “They claim that they are merely distributors of information. The fact that they are near-monopoly distributors makes them public utilities and should subject them to more stringent regulations, aimed at preserving competition, innovation, and fair and open universal access.” He predicted that tech giants would “compromise themselves” to access key markets like China, creating an “alliance between authoritarian states and these large, data rich IT monopolies.” “This may well result in a web of totalitarian control the likes of which not even Aldous Huxley or George Orwell could have imagined,” he warned. Predicting governments would start to more heavily regulate the sector he said: “Davos is a good place to announce that their days are numbered.”’ This is all additionally ironic given that big tech also went to Davos to confirm that they had addressed the growing criticism going their way (19).
In this way, Soros points to the larger or deeper scam going on here with big tech’s ‘octopus stranglehold’ on virtual space. That is, the internet is (or should be) basically a public utility (at least in the sense that a particular network has evolved to effectively become a global medium) – but has (like the global imperative in other utilities like water, energy, the traditional ‘commons’ and even education) has been increasingly privatized and also corporatized. Soros points to how such a global commons can not only go hand in hand with genuine market forces, but how real change is most likely to come from other businesses getting really upset at the perception of monopoly and anti-competitive forces – in the same way, that Microsoft really annoyed a lot of industry players even more so than a public held to ransom and/or manipulated. In this way Soros’s call to regulate the internet as a public utility ‘aimed at preserving competition, innovation and fair and open universal access” is not necessarily inconsistent with the Berners Lee vision of the internet ‘… as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries (20).
[Ps. There are many who remember Soros as a possibly crooked if successful currency speculator on the English pound in 1992 and who was singularly blamed by Mahathir and others for the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. So, is he a crook who developed a conscience at a late old age, or were his financial speculations (even those which caused hardship or damage to many), or would he say that his speculations all along were only a means to a greater end? The answer to this perhaps lies in how: (a) Soros decades ago founded (and continued to financially support since then) the Open Society foundation with its vision of a fairer, more diverse and democratic world), and (b) his recent donation of US$18 billion towards his open society vision brings his total donation to the donation to a reported $32 billion in total so far. (e.g. 21) ]
- CKR 9/2/2018
5 https://www.ft.com/content/f14b3d9e-0417-11e8-9650-9c0ad2d7c5b5 (big tech octopus)
16 CKR (1998), Internet communications, virtual utopias, actual realities, CATAC [https://drive.google.com/file/d/1MQ-kUry_mwf9RhIzb79Ng3TaSsUDjww4/view?usp=sharing]