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July 30, 2008


Kevin Donovan

Extraordinary post. Thank so much for putting it all in perspective.

Yiu-cho Chan

Definitely agree with everything in this post. The public doesn't get to hear about this problem often enough, so it's great to see some more attention being paid. We always hear about how TV and newspaper media are warped by government spin and abuse, but rarely do we hear about how our (yes, our) internet is progressively (or should I say regressively) being hijacked by the wrong people.

The unfortunate part of this intertwining of information (and information technology) with the capitalist system is that the capitalist system is, in its nature, imperialist. The biggest company will fight to get the biggest share of the market (not excluding the outcome of a monopoly). So it shouldn't have been unexpected that if information technologies became an affair lorded over by private companies, then the information that is being presided over by that technology is vulnerable to abuse by either by government or by corporations (not mutually exclusive). This government collusion with companies like Google (who would be more than happy to get you to do ALL your work over Gmail online, interestingly/frighteningly enough) or Yahoo! just brings to light how inherently flawed this system of private companies being the "gatekeepers" to the internet truly is. Of course I could say the internet should be a completely free and non-privatized system of mass communication (because this would be the best way for real grassroots efforts in many different fields to truly flourish) but then I think most people would say that I'm living in a fantasy land. But what a great fantasy!

Glenn Charles

The roots of the attitude examined, though, are a good deal more aged than implied by any of the material presented (which is excellent in context). I think it's this civilization's native response to the new: denial. Right now "identity" is practically defined by finding differences between ourselves and our neighbors, whereas identity of the (human) race is yet at question. I think probably a Babylon (whether or not the first is fictional) occurs, with the tower tumbling down...perhaps fortunately.


Great post! People are in business to make money. I am highly suspicious of all that talk about social entrepreneurship and using capitalism to do good. I can't help but think it is a ploy to avoid embarrassing grassroots campaigns from company opponents (think of the one surrounding the Nike sweatshops a few years ago).

While capitalism with integrity should be applauded, competitive pressures make it hard to put all this lofty talk in action - for instance, China offers many opportunities for Western financial firms, and getting a foot in the door requires putting up with human rights violations. (And I am not a businesswoman - I am an academic.)

The advances in technology make it even easier to monitor people than during the Cold War. Before, rooms and phones were bugged. Now, "spies" could gather troves of information just by sifting through email. And maybe the data is encrypted and the odds are small, but some people do go to extreme lengths to stay in power, and not just in China. I feel like the information companies are shutting down the debate before it even has a chance to get started.


One really weird blind spot is that you have people talking about the internet making bureaucratic-authoritarian institutions obsolete, while all of them are working in bureaucratic-authoritarian corporate institutions.

Let's have an internet campaign to unionize Microsoft or unseat the board of directors of Google, and see how that goes....

Ultimate there are limits to which corporations will challenge bureaucratic control of the internet since your typical Fortune 500 corporation is organized in essentially the same way as the Communist Party.

I wish you luck at trying to develop more open social systems, I really do. I'm unfortunately quite pessimistic that you will be able to do it. The problem is that bureaucratic-authoritarian institutions end up amassing huge amounts of power, and you end up in the dilemma of becoming a bureaucratic-authoritarian organization yourself or losing.

There are instances of history of bureaucratic organizations losing, but they just get replaced by another bureaucracy. Sometimes things improve, often they don't. For example, let's supposed to enforce a corporate code of conduct on the internet. What will happen is that you will end up with bureaucratic, and an internal structure in which some people will have more power and some people will have less power, and ultimately you end up looking a lot like the institutions you are fighting.

One thing that is interesting to read is the history of early socialism. In the late 19th and early 20th century, you have people full of idealism wanting to overthrow the corrupt old power structures. But once you overthrow the corrupt old power structures, you create new power structures that can be as corrupt and oppressive as the old ones. Power inevitably corrupts, and while I think it is impossible to hold power without being corrupted by it, one can try to make things just a little better, and not much worse.

Someday, I imagine myself talking to my grandkids about how it felt to have lived in 1990, right when Communism fell, the internet was rising, and for a moment everything seemed possible.

For people growing up right now like my kids, the internet is just another piece of technology in the background, like television and radio when I grew up in the 1970's.


Thanks Rebecca - I needed that..;)


I was reading an old Economist this evening and the following article echoes themes in your post quite nicely.

Sujan Patricia

That was an awesome and thoughtful post, full credit goes to Rebecca. Please tell me that there really was a position paper by NTK, I’d like to have something to quote/produce when I get involved in any kind of OS discussion.

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