Monday, June 8, 2015


An article counseling India to join with the BRICS countries to “develop an alternative” to American “Internet hegemony” (The Hindu, 6 June, page 9), displays such a comprehensive misunderstanding of global realities that it is difficult to know where to begin a critique.

The author, Parminder Jeet Singh of the Bengaluru-based NGO IT for Change, argues that because the Internet ‘has become like a global neural system running through and transforming all social sectors,” whoever controls that network “begins to wield unprecedented power.”

And who might that be?

Anyone who controls the “connectivity architecture” and “Big Data.”

The connectivity architecture of the Internet is, for historical reasons, in the United States, where it has evolved from its military roots into a public utility governed by anti-monopoly regulations and a vociferously defended equal access philosophy.

What is Big Data?

It is “the continuous bits of information generated by each and every microactivity of our increasingly digitized existence.”

But does anyone control Big Data?

Singh is a shameless fear monger on this topic.

Monsanto is an example of an entity controlling Big Data, he says; it “holds almost field-wise micro information on climate, soil type, neighborhood agri-patterns, and so on. Such data will form the backbone of even its traditional agri-offerings.”

Instead of telling us how Monsanto will use that information in ways detrimental to India in the face of a strong global movement towards organic farming, he merely asserts that it “is easy to understand how data control-based lock-ins are going to be even more powerful and monopolistic than the traditional dependencies in this sector.”

Perhaps to paper over that gap he then notes that John Deere, the world’s largest agricultural machinery company told the US Copyright Office that “farmers don’t own” the computer code that runs their tractors, they only have an “implied license.”

That sounds like a huge power grab, until you consider that it is no different from buying a book and not owning the author’s copyright. Or a computer, and not owning its operating system.

But Singh wants us to feel threatened.

“Similar developments are occurring in every other sector. Policy-making and governance are becoming dangerously dependent on Big Data, even as the public sector is all but giving up its traditional responsibilities for public statistics. The State is increasingly dependent on data collected and controlled by a few global corporations.”

Google, which people “think right now is a mere support” is entering many substantive fields like medicine where networks carry patient information; it is “threatening the traditional players” in various sectors, and “may become the primary agent in the relationship.”

He holds out the prospect that data providers in the education sector who sell “personalized offerings for every student and every context” will “add to the power of the monopolistic networks at the expense of their peripheral users. As their power consolidates, so do the terms of engagements mutate in the favor of the network controllers.”

This is a classic Chicken Little “sky is falling” scare.

It pays no attention to the fact that the logic of global connectivity is not just anti-monopoly but anti-mega corporation.

The mega corporation is increasingly a dinosaur because its essential strengths are based on top-down/center-periphery communications systems that allow small groups to amass, hoard and manipulate information to their advantage.

In the age of the Internet and Worldwide Web, such control is impossible. Power lies in networks that are flat and do not permit top-down control; any power grab by corporations like Google, Facebook or Twitter will spell their instant doom.

As for Big Data, Singh misses the revolutionary potential of the smart phone and the geospatial organization of information.

We are facing a future when Big Data will be collected automatically by billions of individuals and organized geospatially on the publicly owned cloud, beyond the power of any corporation or government to corner or manipulate.

The only way small elite groups will be able to continue enjoying their privileges will be through brutal control of the Internet as in China.

In democratic countries, elite groups have generated fear of terrorism to legitimize their own efforts at fascist control of networks, and in that context, Singh’s advice that India ally with China against the United States is madness.

The only course for democratic forces in India and the United States – not to mention in the other BRICS countries – is to ally against their own power-grabbing elites and internationally, against China, which is now the ugly face of global fascism.

In that international face-off, the key issue is not who will govern the Internet but how we perceive international terrorism: it is not “Islamic” but British, camouflage for its massively profitable post-colonial business of laundering the proceeds of organized crime.

Only if we lay the bogey of terrorism can we move beyond the surveillance/police State and realize the rich democratic potential of a connected world.

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