Rupert Murdoch-owned social networking site MySpace censors the internal messaging service of its own users. When sending messages through the network’s own mail service, certain words are automatically deleted.
This is but one example of how the arbitrary impositions of corporate actors in fact comes with grave political potentials, only held back by lines ultimately drawn by governmental laws and regulations — lines that are often arbitrary or contested in themselves. This “code of conduct” is increasingly common today, among corporate actors like ISPs, search engines and network providers. Inspired by the term just-in-time, used in logistics, I call this particular mode of operation just-about-legal. My argument is that this business method in fact lies at the heart of many of today’s most profitable corporate giants.
Try send a message containing the word “tinyurl” through MySpace’s internal messaging service and what will reach the recipient is two dots in its place: “..”. This is an arbitrary imposition through protocol, a mode of control imposed by the network operator, probably in order to limit spam. Any such form of censoring of text or code is arbitrary in that it could be formatted to censor any phrase, for any reason, at the complete discretion of the controlling authority. Just imagine a scenario where MySpace suddenly becomes indicted for facilitating terrorist propaganda or criminal cells; they could easily switch the protocol to erase unfit words, phrases, weblinks or formulas.
It is already official that the entertainment industry’s main strategy for 2008 is to try force national Internet Service Providers to block out file-sharing, either through making them ostracize their own end-users, or through simply censoring certain sites, like the Danish ISP Tele2 which was recently persuaded to block The Pirate Bay. Ironically, neither method works though: the first idea, monitoring and striking down on individual uses of the Internet, is technically unworkable while the latter idea being similarly unworkable but also involving its own backlash!
What is telling with the ethos of just-about-legal is not the workability of such measures, but the sheer willingness displayed by these corporate actors to compromise the individual privacy and wellbeing of their customers if enough opportunism is found in implementing these arbitrary impositions. It is specifically noteable among companies whose core business models rely on super-squeezed profit margins: take for example Ryanair, who was the last airline to comply with the EU’s regulation to include all taxes and extra fees into the ticket price, and was forced to temporarily take down its own website because of this. Similarly, after having had some trouble with my phone connection, trying to reach the British ISP Tiscali proved a challenge, especially given that their online technical error report form until recently only allowed your request to pick from a date range reaching to 2007 and from a list of browsers similarly antiquated (Netscape Navigator 5, anyone?) — something which indicates that their attention to customer feedback was far from serious. Trying to reach customer service by phone was in fact impossible for several days, due to the customer service line ‘being down for maintenance’ for an indefinite time. It is easy to find oneself in a Kafka-esque position these days, especially given the extent to which our everyday lives rely on infrastructures like phone and Internet lines working.
The reason these corporations can “get away with it” is a simple lack of transparency, and the fact that these impositions generally occur to customers and users as isolated events, often with the burden of proof being expected to be on the customer’s own side: you have to prove it is not your fault, but the provider’s. This is why ad hoc consumer protest groups, message boards and review centres are promising additions to the capitalist landscape, but what is really needed is increased governmental monitoring and policing of corporate practices, especially of those critically important services that pertain to maintaining infrastructure.
With great power comes great responsibility. (Spider-Man)
What is scary when the ISPs like Tele2 seem to lack the steadfastness to oppose the demands that the entertainment industry are increasingly making — although these demands in fact lack legal ground — is that what becomes outlawed is the very basis of the Internet: hyperlinking.
Ironically, with the whole Pirate Bay controversy in full effect at the moment, it becomes obvious that The Pirate Bay is akin to conventional late-capitalist ventures like the abovmentioned in that their core business model also operates just within the confines of legality, engaged in an ongoing skirmish literally on the border of what is permissible or practically workable. Just like Google, The Pirate Bay presents a comprehensive, searchable index of hyperlinks to torrent files. But where the spineless opportunism of the corporate giants risks to create a situation where arbitrary impositions on civic privacy and wellbing are OK, outlaw actors like The Pirate Bay after all retain some kind of sovereignty, in effect striving towards guaranteeing personal freedoms of its users, rather than expediently litigating against them when it suits its own corporate agenda and short-termist profit margins.