The Common Good
April 2012

Meet the New Boss

by Danny Duncan Collum | April 2012

Piano-playing cats or union organizing drives—Google and Facebook don’t care. They just keep a sieve in the flow to collect information that can be sold to advertisers.

Talk about your clash of the titans. King Kong vs. Godzilla had nothing on the battle that played out in January over the U.S. House’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Senate’s Protect Intellectual Property (Protect IP) Act. In this case, the dueling mutant monsters were Hollywood (the film and music industry) vs. Silicon Valley (Google, Facebook, et al.). And Silicon Valley was the easy winner, with a really big assist from its customers, the screen- and gadget-obsessed American public. Google put that famous black banner over their logo, and suddenly Congress was buried under an avalanche of angry citizen phone calls.

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Make no mistake about it, SOPA and Protect IP needed killing. Among other things, they targeted so-called “rogue” foreign websites with sweeping sanctions that could have swept up lots of legitimate web activity. For example, SOPA placed prohibitions on encryption that would have outlawed software the U.S. State Department has developed to assist dissidents in countries that try to control the Internet activity of their citizens. The tech news website CNET called the law “an Internet death penalty” for allegedly-offending sites.

The offense these rogues commit is, of course, providing a vehicle for free transmission of copyrighted material. That’s certainly wrong and against the law and everything. But so is illegal immigration, and even Mitt Romney has had to concede the impracticality of expelling 12 million people. What these bills represented, even more than a threat to free speech, was the death rattle of the old entertainment industry.

The passing of the old industrial model for the film and music industries is inevitable. There will be other avenues for stories and songs, and other ways to make money on them. And it won’t be any anarcho-syndicalist DIY utopia either. Barring systemic economic change on an almost unimaginable scale, we will simply see a new breed of corporate monsters emerge. That’s the “creative destruction” that apologists for capitalism are always going on about. It is refreshing, for once, to see it land on the head of music industry mogul David Geffen and company instead of some poor Ohio steelworker. But we shouldn’t confuse it with any kind of progress toward a world ruled by cooperation.

In fact the outlines of a new corporate cultural order are already emerging. The capitalist genius of Google and Facebook is to stand back and let the flow of Internet data be. Piano-playing cats or union organizing drives—Google and Facebook don’t care. They just keep a sieve in the flow to collect information that can be sold to advertisers. The film and music industries are the past; the future is in personalized advertising. For instance, my Gmail account is alternately littered with ads for self-publishing schemes and online universities, obviously based on my email traffic as a writer and professor. Right now, at the top of the page on my Gmail account there is an ad for a “Food Stamp Phone Plan.” Exactly how does Google Inc. know that I am among the financially challenged? I have a feeling I may not want to know.

Hollywood’s big mistake with SOPA was to extend anti-piracy enforcement beyond the “rogue sites” and require Google to block searches for banned websites. We know Google can do this. They did it in China. But they don’t want to. For them, as for Facebook, their product is our self-initiated activity and they want to keep that activity as free-ranging as possible.

As the SOPA fight indicated, there is a temporary coincidence of interest between Google and those who see the Internet as a medium for an egalitarian social revolution. But that too will pass.

Meet the new boss, different from the old boss, but no better in the end.

Danny Duncan Collum teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. Find out about his novel, White Boy, at www.dannyduncancollum.net.

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