Freedom of expression is a touchstone in western thought, one that follows from the idea of free will. We are free to think and those thoughts when expressed in words should also be free, free from persecution or censorship.
What can we make of Sergey Brin’s comments? His family fled a repressive regime in Russia but he is also a very rich man. On the one hand he probably has a deep seated belief in freedom of expression, on the other hand Facebook and Apple who he names in the Guardian article are effectively competitors in the technology world.
His concerns about state control of the web are I think quite valid. The link between secretive state surveillance and repressive regimes like China is a major problem in this day and age, particularly as so-called free democratic states like the US, UK and Australia continue along with measures to spy on their citizens via the web.
It also helps to explain why powerful vested interests like Hollywood can get support for their anti-piracy campaign. A state that condones and authorizes controls on a communication medium because it ultimately does not trust the public is also likely to be sympathetic to a player who has demonstrated allegiance to state propaganda in the past. Anyone who thinks the film and TV industry hasn’t broadly supported state ideological thinking and the status quo might disagree but there is plenty of evidence of collusion for those who want to look. In fact and in deed, Hollywood exists to tell people a story, one that perpetuates certain beliefs about how the world is. Protecting that existence is obviously important for governments who must resist anarchic tendencies within.
Brin’s comments about Facebook and Apple are not dissimilar but they run the risk of being overshadowed by the commercial threat posed to Google. It is possible to argue that Google does as much if not more than any other player to enable participation on the medium of the 21st century, not just with its products but also in its methodology, yet it is also possible to argue that it does so for a financial return. That return is likely to be threatened if Facebook in particular and Apple almost incidentally continue to exploit the technology to create dominant subnets within the broader internet.
Yet in another way the rise in popularity in these subnets and the way that tend to monopolise mind share is a consequence of the very things that Sergey Brin’s company has enabled. The idea of linking or sharing material for example is exploited in Facebook’s “social” terminology while connectivity and cloud based technology is critical to both Apple and Facebook.
Yet Apple and Facebook are not alike. Apple remains a hardware company that enables software and hardware with a style that panders to individualism. In so doing it cannot afford to be utterly dependent on any one technology and without universal connectivity is some form its product lose most of their value. Critically, Apple wants to be the hardware interface to the internet, a role Google is trying to assume with its Android platform.
Facebook on the other hand is rapidly becoming the location on the internet where people spend time and with that mindshare goes the opportunity to control what people look at and consume. It’s potentially a advertisers wet dream come true and one that helps explain the $100 billion IPO.
Google is to a certain extent caught between a rock and a hard place or to use another analogy, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Apple and Facebook are not directly competing for the same things. Apple and Google are in the mobile market and Facebook and Google are in terms of advertising which means that Google has to compete on two fronts, not an ideal situation.
Unlike the Guardian who placed this article in a series rather grandly called the battle for control of the internet, the story about Google, Facebook and Apple (who are all financial juggernauts in the tech world) is as much about money as it is about ideas about freedom. We should be concerned about state based surveillance and we should be mindful about how a dominant Facebook will eventually reduce our choices on the net and also make it easier to spy on our fellow citizens especially since Facebook snooping is one of the unwritten foundations of its appeal. And we should be very concerned about how all these vested interests affect our lives.
Ultimately the only power people have on the internet is to choose what they put there and what they connect to. If we choose to adopt one technology and use only one source for our information and entertainment then frankly we deserve the consequences. Perhaps something new will disrupt the game plans of Apple and Facebook. Hopefully state surveillance will fail to enslave. It is still up to us to choose how to act.
Web freedom faces greatest threat ever, warns Google’s Sergey Brin | Technology | The Guardian.