From its beginning, the internet – like most technologies – has been a site of struggle.
To what extent will this complex of tools be channeled to serve elite interests to reproduce current social relations essentially intact?
Or, to what extent will it be channeled to serve popular and even radical interests to help transform or even replace current social relations?
But there is always also an additional wrinkle. Whatever the ratio, at any moment, vis a vis system maintenance versus system reform versus system upheaval – there is also the matter of who, specifically, is benefitting most?
Some look at the big picture and try to bend and adapt and use the internet to maintain or overturn basic defining relations. Others look at their own situations and try to bend, adapt, and use the internet to advance self against others. Most do both, particularly in the mainstream. Indeed, this mix of motives and agendas characterizes all market, corporate choices, not just the internet.
Some internet users, watching the growing confrontation about SOPA – the Stop Online Piracy Act – are likely wondering, is Google an agent of wonderful change because it opposes this particularly horrible act? And likewise for other corporations that are coming out against and even mobilizing against SOPA. Is Facebook, Twitter, etc., an ally of free speech and diversity?
No. Not even a little bit. We should remember that even a Mafia Don can wind up opposing a bad act, not humanely or progressively, but self interestedly. And, that is what we see in the case of SOPA. It is like the U.S. government opposing some overseas atrocity, not because the U.S. government is an enemy of atrocity per se, but because in a particular case it just so happens that opposing a particular atrocity serves U.S. interests.
SOPA has two aspects.
On the one hand, SOPA attempts to provide a way for certain major corporations – mainly mainstream media – to punish copyright violations so substantially as to try to dry up what the act calls piracy. On the other hand, however, the same act, SOPA, by virtue of its being able to be used to shut nominally offending sites down, has the power to dry up dissent and diversity more broadly.
Two sectors, corporations who are hurting due to internet piracy, and corporations who are benefitting, like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, are clashing. This aspect of the debate about SOPA is about who is benefitting most – not about the internet big picture. This is a fight among haves.
Then there is the other aspect. Government officials who favor SOPA are likely thinking about the big picture, as are leftist critics of the act. In the big picture, the act is a way to try to restrain the use of the internet to challenge, transform, or even replace current social relations. Putting a lid on that is a plus from the government perspective. It is also a plus from the perspective of all corporate profiteers – though not so big a plus that it will cause Google, et. al., to sign on, since the tech beneficiaries feel that while restraining system challenges is fine, doing so by restraining their profit possibilities is not fine.
In other words, don't make the mistake of thinking Google, Facebook, or any other corporation sees the internet as a tool that ought to be utilized on behalf of free speech, diversity, and human well being and development, including changing institutions that obstruct such results. They don't. They see the internet as a tool from which to profit and expand their own power. And that's it. Propose an act that diminishes diversity and restrains dissent, without restraining their profit options, and they will fall right in line.
One last point. I can well understand an organization that operates in some domain feeling it has some responsibility for keeping an eye out for that domain. Surely that is an okay inclination. Thus, Wikipedia and other such non profit institutions oppose SOPA and do so rightfully and responsibly. But let's not get too carried away about celebrating their stand, as if it shows a courageous will to fight for justice. That organizations get upset when an act threatens their existence is not a sign of social responsibility. That would be evidenced by their getting upset when an act threatens others more than self, and by their responding in that case, too.