New Technology: Virtually Free

By Brian Winston and Paul Walton

From the printing press on, all new technologies have had their democratic potential firmly suppressed. The Internet proves to be no exception.

Once upon a time there was a wide area network called the Internet. A network unscathed by the capitalist Fortune 500 companies and the like. Then somebody decided to deregulate the Internet and hand it over to the ‘big boys’ in the telecommunications industry. … The Internet Liberation Front is a small underground organisation of computer security experts. We are capable of penetrating virtually any network linked to the Internet — any network … Just a friendly warning Corporate America.… – ‘Greetings from the Internet Liberation Front’ reprinted in the Guardian, London 12 July 1995

Not since Eden, some would have you believe, has humankind been in such a state of grace as is now enjoyed by users of the Internet. In the new dimension of cyberspace real freedom is at last possible. A virtual world of true democracy where no speaker is more powerful than any other has been created, unplanned and unsanctioned by the potentates of telecommunications and computing. A world, moreover, that appears to be, to all intents and purposes, free and unregulated. As the authoritative Economist recently put it: ‘The growth of the Net is not a fluke or a fad, but the consequence of unleashing the power of individual creativity. If it were an economy, it would be the triumph of the free market over central planning. In music, jazz over Bach. Democracy over dictatorship.’

This is hyperbole. It is specious nonsense of a particularly disabling kind, in that it obscures and indeed prevents reasoned discussion about technological change and social policy.

The Net is a sort of computer-based hybrid between a telephone exchange and a broadcasting system. At one level it is nothing more revolutionary than a worldwide network of computers exchanging data telephonically, which they have done throughout the 50 years of their existence. Originally data was transmitted between the mainframes at the heart of the military-industrial complex and was about thermonuclear ignition problems. Now it predominantly takes the form of electronic e-nail transmitted between personal computers.

Given the level of hyperbole the Net is generating, let us remember Raymond Williams: ‘In the early years of any new technology, it is especially important to clear the mind of the habitual technological determinism that almost inevitably comes with it.’

Technological determinism is that system of thought which simply seeks to assess technology in a vacuum ignoring all social, historical, economic and cultural factors. It is in fact a species of flat-earthism in that it concentrates on one set of phenomena to the exclusion of all others. The technohype over the Internet is a particular egregious example of technological determinism run totally amok.

In a world where, according to the International Telecommunication Union, half of humanity are more than a two-hour walk away from a telephone we need to remember, for starters, that we are talking about the Haves and completely ignoring the Have-nots.

Even the Information-Haves are not that blessed with this technology either. The commonly cited figure of 20 million Internet users seems to have little basis in fact. John S Quaterman, an Internet demographer from Austin, Texas, last summer estimated users worldwide at about two to three million. A recent survey suggested that Internet-connected computers in the UK numbered no more than 300,000.

And who are these users? According to the Georgia Institute of Technology, in the most comprehensive survey of Internet use to date (1994), 90% are men, 80% are white, 70% are North Americans, 50% spend 40 hours or more a week computing and 30% are graduates.

This, of course, is no basis for denying the main thrust of the hype which predicts revolutionary impact for the Net in the future. However, the first task of any argument claiming profound effects for a new technology is to explain how and why it differs from previous technologies – not in its technical capacities and potentials (which is the failing of technological determinism) but in the social relations and cultural forms that have produced it. This the current hype makes no attempt to do.

In fact, there is, exactly, nothing new about the broader social circumstances behind this technology. The basis of the Internet is a system of telephone links (which dates back a century) augmented by the newer technologies of satellite coupled with digitalisation (which dates back to the 30s) and computing (which dates back to the 50s). The development of the Net is following established institutional patterns.

For example, in Internet mythology, the Net was supposedly created, in an unplanned, unstructured fashion, by individual computer enthusiasts linking up their modems. But, on the contrary, it is a by-product of the growth of the world economy, a handmaiden of the transitional corporation. Far from being unplanned its main trunk line (the backbone) has been operated by the National Science Foundation of the United States government.

Yet again, this does not mean, of itself, the hype is wrong. Even if we allow that the Net’s history is no different from other communications technologies whose democratic potential has not been realised, this still does not mean that the Net might not be different in the long-term. It is still possible that at last a truly democratic technology is at hand.

But when closely examined the case for what might be termed ‘digital exceptionalism’ rests primarily on the fact that the Internet was supposedly an ‘unauthorised’ and ‘democratic’ application of computing and telephonic technologies. This contention (although clearly not based on the historical record) is in some way ‘proved’ by the fact that the Internet presents an apparently surprising absence of pricing mechanisms and enforceable controls. Cyberspace appears to be free.

But this is more apparent than real and is changing rapidly. In mid 1995, the National Science Foundation has handed the Net’s backbone over to the private telecommunications giants Sprint, Ameritech and Pacific Bell. These will now become the gatekeepers, or principle access points. It was this development that caused the cyberadicals of the Network Liberation Front to announce themselves to the world. But even before this development, such Internet fundamentalists were in the grip of the strange delusion that they and their communications system stood outside of capitalism. Nevertheless, they had all bought computers, modems, software, subscriptions to on-line services and telephones.

Their illusion of getting some thing for nothing was entirely based on the fact that data transmission times have dropped so that it takes only two-thirds of a second, for example, to send an e-mail message from the US to Antarctica. Moreover, the Net breaks up even such super-fast messages transmitting them with scant regard to the time/distance cost structures of traditional telephone use. But, however fast and however efficient the routing, this is still not ‘free’. The telephonic infrastructure is being paid for by users, but minimally. These costs become largely invisible because the Net itself is a very efficient user (and, indeed, abuser) of the infrastructure. To believe that the Internet is, in fact, free is exactly the same as believing that commercial television is ‘free to air’.

The hype suggests, though, that the Internet is nevertheless too complex now to be controlled and priced because of the intrinsic nature of the technology. But how true can this be in the long-term? It is surely illogical on the one hand to claim this while at the same time denying that the same computing power cannot keep track of what is happening for pricing or, indeed, other purposes.

Handing the backbone over to commercial firms is only one of a number of reasons for supposing that the current invisible level of price will not long continue. Infrastructure pricing systems will be adjusted to take cognisance of the fact that data streams can be as valuable to individuals as they once were only to bulk commercial users.

So where does all this leave the Net’s potential for democratic speech? Andrew Garton from Brisbane, Australia, argues that for a time it appeared the Net posed a ‘threat to governments and corporations wishing to control information to their communities’, but he was writing in autumn 1994 prior to its privatisation; and even prior to this he had noted the growing hostility of official bodies and their attempts to curtail aspects of network activity. He suggests that by the late 1980s the US had reached the stage, ‘where the surveillance of certain individuals and confiscation of computer equipment, along with the closure of many electronic bulletin-boards (micro-networks often used for specialist information sharing), resembled the red scares of the 1950s’.

He cites the US operation ‘Sun Devil’ of May 1990 which involved 28 raids in two weeks and the confiscation of 42 computers and 23,000 discs. And presently there are moves by the Clinton administration to regulate the use of encryption software to ensure the security of daily exchange. Researchers have argued that as the backbone is located in America, electronic mail is ‘wide open to US surveillance’. Also, several people last year have been charged by the British police for abuses on the Internet mostly relating to pornography, fraud or pederasty. Yet a study reported by T. Mathews reveals that significantly less than one per cent of computer traffic on the Internet relates to pornography and violence.

Pressure from the state on Internet service providers has led to Internet connections to users being cut in both the US and Canada. By mid-June 1995 America Online – the largest single commercial provider for message senders on the mailing lists which were examined – was reportedly cutting off half a dozen users a day for ‘Net abuse’.

This is not to say that the Net is entirely conservative in its communication. There are networks such as the global Association for Progressive Communications (the APC), which have been providing low-cost Net access to over 100 communities both in the developed and developing world. Andrew Garton reports that during the Soviet coup of 1991 the Russian staff of the Moscow-based GlasNet opposed to the coup provided the most direct and immediate reports of what was happening. Susan O’Donnell has recently studied activist groups on the Internet and was able to show that 14% of messages were linked with solidarity actions outside the Internet and around 10% of all messages circulating on such lists encouraged readers to participate actively in joining such groups.

Despite such findings, since the early 1990s a whole range of US groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and other First Amendment supporters have had to struggle against the tendencies pushing control and privatisation. It is clear that the state authorities can monitor exchanges. And not just the state. For instance, newspapers report that in the UK private security forces had joined GreenNet for the express purpose of monitoring the behaviour of activists working on anti-roads campaigns.

The point is that all communication technologies from the printing press on have democratic potential. History reveals that these potentials are normally suppressed. The danger with the current hype over the Internet is that because it looks simply at technological possibilities it directs attention away from what is actually happening. Freedom on the Internet is not inevitable. It is rather, as ever, a question of political struggle.

It is no accident that the ideologues of the Economist and leading politicians such as American Vice-President Al Gore want the hidden hand of the free market to dominate pricing and access. This, of course, suits the transnational corporations but the result is not then a democratic Information Highway. It is, rather, an Information Toll-Road – and it looks increasingly likely that the toll-gate keepers will not only charge for travel but also insist on examining every last piece of baggage. The cyberadicals of the Internet Liberation Front are going to have their work cut out for them. History is not on their side.


Brian Winston is director of and Paul Walton is senior research fellow at the Centre for Journalism Studies, Cardiff University. This article is reprinted with permission from Index on Censorship 1 1996, pages 78-83