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570886 MSDM03 Digital Edge: Contemporary Issues and Trends Word Count: 4,998
The Cultural Politics of Control on the Internet
In this paper, we will discuss the cultural politics of control on the Internet relying on current political debates (Net Neutrality1 in the United States), recent global events (Google¶s exit from China) (Olesen 2010) and the experience of control by an individual user (through the impact of design). This paper attempts to look inside the culture of control and tries to re-imagine the cultural politics of control (Couldry 2000) 2, loosely based on openness, complexity and reflexivity (Couldry 2000: 4). This paper recognizes it is not possible to meet the full rigor and discipline of the method, given the time and space constraints, and we will examine the metaphors of control in each scenario set in its cultural and political context to redress this imbalance.
The term ³cultural politics of control´ is not used in the sense of political economy theory (Appadurai 1990) 3 although references to a capitalist mode of production is unavoidable. While we will discuss specific arguments as to who controls the Internet (Goldsmith and Wu 2006) or who rules the Internet (Thierer, Crews, and Cato 2003), we will not be review them in detail, mainly because it has been done. The focus of this paper is to highlight some of the contemporary issues and trends in a digital culture, using the theory of the cultural politics of control to reveal the relationship of control and power in contemporary society.
Tim Wu s definition of Net Neutrality as a network design principle to achieve a maximally useful public information network with aspirations to treat all content, sites and platforms equally, is a reflexive and neutral definition: http://www.timwu.org/network_neutrality.html 2 Nick Couldry (2000) Inside Culture: re-imagining the method of cultural studies 3 Arjun Appadurai describes the cultural politics of the nation state and its place in a global economy of culture and politics as a series of interrelationship between changing landscapes (mediascapes, infoscapes, ethonoscapes, etc) the essay Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy appears in The Cultural Studies Reader (During 1999: 220-233).
Firstly, we will discuss our definition of a theory of the cultural politics of control (Section 1). Secondly, we will discuss control in the context of the current debate on Net Neutrality in the United States and the potential impact for the rest of the world (Section 2). Thirdly, we will discuss the rules of the Internet as control mechanisms, cultural sensitivities behind government censorship and surveillance, and the specific case of Google¶s exit from China (Section 3). The last section explores the impact of design on the user experience and some implications for privacy (Section 4). We will end the paper with a brief summary and conclusion.
Section 1: A Theory of the Cultural Politics of Control Cultural studies is undergoing a metaphorical change, akin to a mid-life crisis, reimagining itself as a research methodology4. It is deeply rooted in a democratic vision to investigate the link between the study of culture and power (Couldry 2000: 2). But it has been stuck in the same groove, analyzing popular culture as an ³out of body´ experience, outside of the experiential and never part of it (Couldry 2000: 3). As a result, cultural studies focused on ³where the light shines, not where the shadows appear´ (Couldry 2000: 3). Cultural studies must analyze culture from the inside by embracing the complexity of the experiential5, but at the same time, leaving space to question (objectively) and to allow for reflexivity (Bourdieu and Nice 2004: 4) 6 (subjectively). Using this approach to examine the cultural politics of control, we aim to apply the attributes of openness (Gadamer 2004: 355, 546) 7, complexity (Mill 2006: 466) 8 and reflexivity (Couldry 2000: 4).
Inside Culture, written in 2000, is based on the premise that there is a crisis of methods in cultural studies. 5 Couldry is critical of recent cultural studies for lapsing into excessively complex language but recognizes that there is a need for a theory of cultural complexity. 6 Pierre Bourdieu describes reflexivity as every word that can be uttered about scientific practice can be turned back on the person who utters it. (Bourdieu 2004: 4) 7 In Truth and Method, Gadamer explains openness as a hermeneutic experience it is common bond that involves recognizing that I myself must accept some things that are against me, even though no one else forces me to do so (Gadamer 2004: 355) and our capacity for openness to a reality which does not correspond to our opinions, our fabrications, our previous expectations (Gadamer 2004: 546) depends on whether it is possible to escape the sphere of influence of our education or our socialization, all of which is influenced by linguistics. 8 J. S. Mill describes complexity as effects which depend on a complication of causes can be made the subject of a true induction by observation and experiment (p. 466) i.e. in social sciences, there are factors too numerous to be ascertained or noted, or too rapidly in flux to provide the necessary stable conditions to separates causes from contingently accompanying factors.
Due to the limitation of space and time, it is not possible to apply this method with the detailed rigor required. In brief, the theory requires that we analyze culture from the inside, and retain a skeptical eye to avoid the temptation to reify culture, treating culture as a mass of open-ended processes (Couldry 2000: 4). We will immerse in the subjective investigation of the cultural experience, and be able to step back from the ³me´ merged inside culture to critically examine ourselves on difficult and uncertain questions such as belonging and detachment (Couldry 2000: 4). Studying objective and subjective elements of culture together helps us to understand the scale of cultural and political production in ourselves and others:
«how we speak about others and how we speak personally must be consistent with each other, if our theory is to be fully accountable«We cannot oversimplify the cultural experiences of others, without caricaturing our own. Cultural studies in this sense involves an ethic of reciprocity, a mutual practice of both speaking and listening, which is inextricably tied to taking seriously the complexity of cultures. It is here that ethics (and politics) converge with method (Couldry 2000: 5).
Before addressing specific scenarios of culture and politics, we will discuss the nature of control in a modern society. The discourse on the nature of control is extensive and it will require scoping to fit into this discussion. Our starting point is the shift in contemporary society, moving from disciplinary regimes9 to regimes of control (Deleuze 1998: 1) (Hardt and Negri 2000: 329). These regimes of control are not merely institutional. The use of the metaphor of ³societies of control´ (Deleuze 1998: 1) aims to represent institutions as the source of power, due to the structuring and consolidating of the strategy behind the formation of power (Kaufman 1998: 57). Deleuze on Foucault, remarks ³every society has its diagram(s)´ (Deleuze, Hand, and Foucault 2006: 31).
In the mini-essay Society of Control, Deleuze opens by saying that Foucault located the disciplinary societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they reach their height at the outset of the twentieth. (Deleuze 1998: 1)
In a capitalist society, it is argued that the diagram is ³the distributed network, a structural form without center that resembles a web or meshwork´, i.e. the Internet (Galloway 2004: 3 ). The nature of control is cybernetic and dictated by automated systems and operations (Kaufman 1998: 57). These automated systems and operations are able to act as intermediaries of control, which Hardt argues to be ³normative command centers radiating control, productive less of sovereignty than of eddies of social order´ (Kaufman 1998: 56). In Michael Hardt¶s analysis, this has led to the withering of civil society into a post-civil society (Kaufman 1998: 23).
Section 2: The Curious Politics of Net Neutrality
For the proponents of Net Neutrality, their guiding principle is to preserve a free and open Internet (Andersen 2008: 291-296; Zittrain 2008: 184)
. The main aim is to
ensure that those who provide access to the Internet (e.g. Internet Service Providers or ISPs) do not discriminate between different kinds of content and applications made available on the Internet12. The metaphor of ³toll charges´13 refer to ISPs attempt to levy a charge for premium services on the Internet. It is argued that this is inconsistent with the Internet¶s infrastructure being ³an open, decentralized, network of networks through which information flows freely along a shared routing protocol´ (Chadwick and Howard 2009: 324). There has always been cultural, political, and economic and technology reasons to maintain control points on the Internet. It is more accurate to describe the Internet as a ³network of filters and chokepoints´ (Chadwick and Howard 2009: 324). However, multiple chokepoints combined with market power, i.e. allowing ³content gatekeepers´ (Morris 2010)14 such as ISPs to charge for quality or premium delivery, is arguably an anti-competitive and unfair practice (Singham 2007: 470-471; Zittrain 2008: 178) .
Anderson gives a succinct version of the Net Neutrality debate, what it is about and the players. Jonathan Zittrain argues that Net Neutrality principles that the network has been operated in a particularly socially beneficial way (Zittrain 2008: 184) can also apply to Internet services that solicit mash-ups from third party programmers, like Google Maps or Facebook. 12 See Frequently Asked Questions on Net Neutrality at Save The Internet Coalition: http://www.savetheinternet.com/frequently-asked-questions. [accessed May 4, 2010] 13 Online freedom advocate publication, Free Press describes the idea of toll charges - ³they [ISPs] want to reserve express lanes for their own content and services ±- or those of big corporations that can afford to pay steep tolls ± and leave the rest of us on a winding dirt road´ ± see http://www.freepress.net/policy/internet/net_neutrality [accessed May 4, 2010] 14 Recently, the blogosphere has lit up with questions about who is watching the watcher.
In the United States, 99.6% of Americans access broadband Internet on their phones or with cable companies, and this is said to be a duopoly15. Broadband providers not only own the networks but also supply content and services to compete with third party developed content and applications available on the Internet (Kapustka 2005) 16. It is argued that the dominance of the broadband providers will stifle competition and free speech due to preference for their own content over others (Nuechterlein and Weiser 2005: 149-150; Zittrain 2008: 178).
Net Neutrality proponents seek non-discrimination principles to be applied in the spirit of openness and transparency in a networked environment. Using metaphors such as ³tolls´ and ³gatekeepers´ have raised question as to who controls the Internet. For the cyberspace libertarians (Hardt 1995; Lessig and McChesney 2006), the architecture of the Internet ± its hardware and software ± is a powerful way of controlling Internet behavior. Google, Yahoo! and eBay are Net Neutrality supporters, with Tim-Berners Lee (Bennett 2006), and President Obama (Kerr 2009).
A key debate is the interference of data packets by ISPs in an industry practice known as ³throttling´ (Kingwell and Turmel 2009: 142). This involves the prioritizing traffic based on application or content type, like an Internet traffic cop, under the industry practice of network management (Schatz 2009) (Associated Press 2008). The criteria used for prioritizing traffic is based on the network operator¶s practices and values. In the case of a ³walled garden´ platform, such as on a mobile phone device, it is argued that the blocking of data streams for content (Google web page) or applications (Skype video) by the network access provider, who operates the same competing service, amounts to content discrimination (Zittrain 2008: 178). Hence, the rallying public call to stop ISPs acting like an Internet cop, ³blocking, speeding up or slowing down Web content based on its source, ownership or destination´17.
This is an unverified statistic from Google¶s public policy blog available at http://googlepublicpolicy.blogspot.com/2007/06/what-do-we-mean-by-net-neutrality.html Richard Whitt, Washington Telecom and Media Counsel for Google [Accessed: May 4, 2010] 16 Madison River Communications was fined US$15,000 for blocking the Voice over IP (VoIP) service provided by Vonage. FCC Chairman Michael Power affirmed that the Internet should remain open to all types of traffic. 17 Except from Pro-Net Neutrality website: www.save theInternet.com [Accessed: May 4, 2010]
The Net Neutrality debate in the United States has not translated onto the global stage. This goes back to who controls the Internet. ISPs are the primary Internet gatekeepers because ³(p)ressure applied strategically to the concentric ISPs serving smaller ISPs«can cover large swaths of subscribers´ (Goldsmith and Wu 2006: 73). Many governments have significant investments in content filtering technology used for surveillance and censorship (Chadwick and Howard 2009: 330) (Dijk 2006: 143)
The next level of intermediary control which can be employed by governments are the search engines (Goldsmith/Wu: 75), who are routinely required to block links due to possible government action (see below: Section 3). The government also seizes domain names and takes out injunctions against websites (Goldsmith/Wu: 78). The bizarre result is the Internet has increased the power of government by enhancing its ability to monitor and taken action against everyday activities of its citizens.
Google¶s recent position to stop abiding by the self-censorship rules imposed by the Chinese government as a condition of operating inside the cultural walls of China (Olesen 2010) is a complex case in point. The reasons for Google¶s exit from China are attributed to the cyber attacks on Google.cn and the access of two Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists, with the policy decision being based on:
«the security and human rights implications of what we have unearthed, but also because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech (Drummond 2010)
In this global context, the tension between being an intermediary of control and upholding privacy or free speech, takes on a new dimension. Google is playing a balancing game between the political debate of control over the Internet, and the cultural sovereignty of censorship and surveillance by governments.
Van Djik provides a short summary of government s interests and investments in filtering and rating technologies.
To summarize, the US Net Neutrality debate has lit a bonfire in the context of the battle for control over public information networks. It is argued that the use of metaphors such as ³tolls´, ³gatekeepers´, ³traffic cops´ and ³content cops´ in U.S. public discourse signifies a strong shift in the power relations. In spite of this, the Net Neutrality metaphor has not lit up the rest of the world. Ironically, it has revealed the shadows of global government initiatives to control the Internet via intermediaries such as ISPs, search engines and content players, including the very supporters of the US Net Neutrality debate. The overlapping interest of ISPs as Internet cops, and the interest of government in censorship and surveillance, are the reasons for the lack of enthusiasm here. Even in Europe, there is limited debate and even where this is debate, it is not focused on the cultural politics of control, but on technical aspects of network management practices.
Section 3: Internet Rules as artifacts of control
In Who Rules the Internet (Thierer, Crews, and Cato 2003), Vint Cerf describes ³an ensemble of rules´ (Thierer, Crews, and Cato 2003: foreword, vii) that unobtrusively make the Internet work. Software programs created to work within each layer, and technical standards act as self-regulating protocols between the layers or between software applications (Zittrain 2008: 67-71)19. These ³rules of the road´ are simple and yet powerful enough to determine the operation of the Internet, how applications such as email are supported and the success of any service or application.
Most importantly, these rules are also part of complex global systems of policies and regulations, specific to a venue or jurisdiction. These rules are part of the everyday culture underlying the Internet, mirrored in the world of politics (e.g. the Government Advisory Committee of ICANN or the Technical Standards Organization of ITU) (Thierer, Crews, and Cato 2003: foreword, Vint Cerf). Vint Cerf answers the question of who rules the Internet with the decisive ³You and I and 600 million others, in some measure´ (Thierer, Crews, and Cato 2003: foreword, xiii). It is the converged ³we´ who rule the Internet. We argue that these ordinary everyday rules of the Internet are part of a shared culture on and off the Internet.
Jonathan Zittrain metaphor of an hour-glass to describe the generative pattern underlying the infrastructure of the Internet is helpful (Zittrain 2008: 67 -71). 7
We argued for the conceptualization of the ³ensemble of rules´ as artifacts of control and the acknowledgement of the underlying cultural politics (MacKenzie and Wajcman 2003)20. Inside these technical standards, protocols and rules, are embedded with values and ethics ± sometimes, interpreted in a global context to apply to a local jurisdiction with unintended consequences (Thierer, Crews, and Cato 2003: foreword, vii). Local culture, values and ethics represented as rules apply to the global cultural politics of the Internet21. An example is the censorship of online content. There has been increase in the practice of internet filtering over the years (Deibert 2008: 143). In a recent 2007 review, this technology was used by 26 of 40 countries (Chadwick and Howard 2009: 332). Five years earlier, it was only used by China, Iran and Saudi Arabia (Chadwick and Howard 2009: 327). Thailand began with blocking pornography, then proceeded to filter and block politically sensitive websites, and ended up blocking YouTube entirely due to a single video, deemed culturally insensitive and offensive to the King of Thailand (Chadwick and Howard 2009: 327).
The notion of ³mission creep´ has spread to many countries, and not necessarily limited to countries with a lack of transparency or accountability in censorship policy. In 2001, ISPs in the UK were threatened with prosecution for distribution of illegal adoption sites (Goldsmith and Wu 2006: 73), so they proceeded to block these overseas sites to prevent access by UK citizens, acting as gatekeepers for government concerns, not merely dumb pipes. Search engines also act in the same way, contrary to being mere platforms for third party content. Governments continue to regulate, censor, and otherwise police the Internet despite its complex, decentralized and distributed architectures and the new opportunities for unregulated communication and networking (Chadwick and Howard 2009: 327-334). The result is an arms race between new techniques of control and new ways to avoid them. Anti-surveillance technologies are de rigueur on the Internet. Their aim is to protect the privacy of the individual.
Langdon Winner ³Do Artifacts Have Politics?´ This does not suggest that there is a totalizing form of politics on the Internet but it is argued that there is mash-up of culture and politics in the form of rules. (Couldry 2000: 32)
Tor (the onion router) is free software and an open network aimed at countering traffic analysis by ISPs (Dingledine and Pet 2002: 64).22 It is registered as a 501(c)(3) charity in the United States, maintained and operated by volunteers. Anonymity on the Internet is big business, including anti-surveillance tools to avoid the prying eyes of government and its direct/indirect intermediaries. Glype23 and ³Googlesharing Project´24 are examples of growing interest in web proxy networks that enable anonymity on the Net, and illustrates an online cultural reaction to the invasiveness of industry data collection practices. While peer-to-peer file sharing technology such as Bit Torrent have kept users anonymous for some time, questions about who runs these businesses, and the ethics behind them are also being raised. The arms race on antisurveillance and anonymity tools has begun.
To summarize, the diagram underlying the Internet is governed by computer protocols that unobtrusively make things work. These rules are riddled with inherent values, ethics or cultural contexts. Traditional media studies are focused on censorship and surveillance but it is only a piece of the overall puzzle. We must examine the culture and politics of control to understand ± firstly, the role of protocols in the facilitation of the politics behind censorship and surveillance by governments and their intermediaries, and secondly, the cultural response from users of being ³controlled´ and the search for anti-surveillance and anonymity enabling technologies for greater choice and control of their privacy and freedom to participate in the Internet culture.
Section 4: The user experience of control
There are two opposing views on control of the user experience ± accessibility and usability ± and the norms associated with these design principles are culturally and politically divergent. Usability focuses on ease of use and learning, and user satisfaction, known as the user-centered paradigm (Bardini 2000: 20; Frascara 2002: 1-7). While it deals with user interfaces between human and machine, the focus is on the ³thing´ being designed.
The Tor Onion Router software is classified as a privacy enabling technology, and can be download for free at - http://www.torproject.org/. 23 A web proxy server software to allow for anonymous surfing by removing your IP address http://www.glype.net/. 24 A web proxy server network claiming to prevent Google from tracking your online browsing activities: http://www.googlesharing.net/.
Current designs are criticized for being difficult to use (Shneiderman 2002: 14). This is a recognition of ³the importance of tools and social systems that support human goals, control, and responsibility´ (Shneiderman 2002: 237). This is a shift back to Engerbart¶s original idea of bootstrapping - computers are ³powerful prostheses, coevolving with their users to enable new modes of creative thought, communication, and collaboration´ (Bardini 2000: 143). Under Engelbart¶s cybernetic usability, ease of use was not a principle design criteria. Over time, the norm of user-friendliness (or usability) took precedence over Engelbart¶s cybernetic design. (Bardini 2000: 216). While usability was about achieving a specific goal with great efficiency, the other criteria is the degree by which technology is accessible by as many people as possible. This means it required an understanding of the impact of technology on the user post facto25. This shift in focus means stepping inside invisible cultures - people with disabilities who are unable to access new technology, resulting in social detachment and exclusion from the information society 26. The underlying values are equality and non-discrimination, to arrive at a society open and accessible to all. This approach seeks to redress the balance of the utilitarian model of usability in technology design.
Website design is dramatic example of the twin and competing goals of usability and accessibility. Are websites built with privacy in mind? Usability dictated by purpose in most cases are linked to marketing, advertising, e-commerce or entertainment. Design subsumed by economic rationale creates a path dependency away from ethics or privacy. As per the norms of the early website industry ± websites may freely gather as much personal data as desirable from consumers and they need not ask permission to gather personal data (Hetcher 2004: 247), serving the interests of a nascent website industry, with little legal or social pressure (Hetcher 2004: 248). We argue the social norm of user-friendliness prevailed over existing privacy norms27.
Jorge Frascara in Design and the social sciences: making connections argued to move away from user-centered design paradigms to an Internet inspired participatory design (Frascara 2002: 1-7) 26 The European Commission Communication on e-Accessibility was set up to address issues of disenfranchisement and to consider any legal and policy issues, and their website can be viewed at:
The counter-argument is that design is capable of creating new social norms around the principles of trust Shneiderman, Ben. 2002. Leonardo's laptop : human needs and the new computing technologies. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.]: MIT Press., an important concept widely adopted in the ICT industry.
To summarize, the user experience of control is bound tightly with the utilitarian model of usability. In this model, the norms of a design community continue to prevail over considerations such as privacy. To achieve the vision of ubiquitous access, the requirements of an intelligent space need to be met, where ³the scale in terms of numbers of agents and amount of information is large´ (Lievrouw and Livingstone 2004: 118) and it means that ³technology will exist to enable all agents to access or provide information wherever, whenever and to whomever it is useful«´ (Lievrouw and Livingstone 2004: 118). The dependency on social norms can make or break this vision, and it is argued these norms are rooted in the cultural politics of control.
Conclusion We started this paper with a look ³inside culture´, specifically the cultural politics of control in contemporary society. We aimed towards re-imagining the methods of cultural politics through openness, complexity and reflexivity. The three scenarios chosen for this paper generally reflect these attributes:
(1) The Net Neutrality debate exemplifies a lack of openness on both sides of the debate ± the proponents for an open and free Internet evoke neutrality as a principle, but their own stance on neutrality in the cultural politics of control is questionable (e.g. content players also engage in network management practices),
(2) The cultural sensitivities of the practice of global Internet filtering and censorship demonstrates the complexity of culture management by government, trying to maintain the sovereignty of local norms, customs and beliefs against global political pressures. Google is a case study in complexity in light of its policy to uphold Internet freedoms as a global cultural policy, instead of bowing to localized sovereignty, and
(3) The user-centered design conundrum goes to the lack of reflexivity in technology, and the greater need to embrace this method to redress the imbalance of product design determinism.
By examining the metaphors of ³tolls´, ³gatekeepers´ and ³traffic cop´, we say that the real battle ahead is the control of the Internet (Goldsmith and Wu 2006: 70). The discussion of Internet protocols as ³rules´ contextualized by the cultural politics also revealed the control mechanism exerted by the underlying diagram of the Internet (Galloway 2004: 8). This translates into power in contemporary society. Lastly, we concluded that the utilitarian model of usability is a failure of reflexivity, in that the norms of the usability driven principles continue to prevail over considerations such as privacy. We have shown that the contemporary issues and trends in a digital culture examined in this paper are deeply rooted in the cultural politics of control.
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