(This is an article excerpted from the blog, published August 9, 2005)
Democracy is a free and equal people. To have true perception of the state of the nation, the electorate needs access to honest, unbiased information, or failing that; all points of view.
Is corporate control of Internet Indexes a threat to democracy?
In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville published the first volume of his two part classic ‘Democracy in America’.
Tocqueville was a young French aristocrat and lawyer, living in an unsettled post-revolutionary France, and curious about democracy in America.
America was young and her experiment in modern democracy was unproven. Democracy was an exciting idea, and Tocqueville was curious about how and why it was working out, and where it might lead.
At the time that he was writing, the modern corporation as we know it (http://www.aurora.ca/about_corp.php), didn’t exist . Still, Tocqueville recognised a threat to democracy:
"I am of the opinion, on the whole, that the manufacturing aristocracy which is growing up under our eyes is one of the harshest that ever existed in the world; but at the same time it is one of the most confined and least dangerous. Nevertheless, the friends of democracy should keep their eyes anxiously fixed in this direction; for if ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy again penetrates into the world, it may be predicted that this is the gate by which they will enter."
Tocqueville, p. 256. See also: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER2/CDFinal/Toc/ch2_20.htm.
Since then, in America and in other countries, corporations have acquired limited human rights, and have subsequently grown hugely in economic, legal, and political, power and influence (http://www.thomhartmann.com/summary.shtml).
Mergers and acquisitions have led to larger and more powerful global corporations which threaten to amalgamate into a handful of super-powerful mega-corporations.
Still, Tocqueville might not have been overly concerned, for although he noted a tendency for power to be continually transferred into the hands of the central power:
"No sovereign ever lived in former ages so absolute or so powerful as to undertake to administer by his own agency, and without the assistance of intermediate powers, all the parts of a great empire; none ever attempted to subject all his subjects indiscriminately to strict uniformity of regulation and personally to tutor and direct every member of the community. The notion of such an undertaking never occurred to the human mind; and if any man had conceived it, the want of information, the imperfection of the administrative system, and, above all, the natural obstacles caused by the inequality of conditions would speedily have checked the execution of so vast a design."
Tocqueville, p. 356. See also http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper2/CDFinal/Toc/ch4_06.htm.
There was one inherent condition of democracy that Tocqueville spent some time considering – writing in 1840, he noted that isolation and weakness is a consequence of democracy:
"Whenever social conditions are equal, public opinion presses with enormous weight upon the mind of each individual; it surrounds, directs, and oppresses him; and this arises from the very constitution of society, much more than from its political laws. As men grow more alike, each man feels himself weaker in regard to all the rest; as he discerns nothing by which he is considerably raised above them, or distinguished from them, he mistrusts himself as soon as they assail him. Not only does he mistrust his strength, but he even doubts of his right; and he is very near acknowledging that he is in the wrong, when the greater number of his countrymen assert that he is so. The majority do not need to constrain him – they convince him. In whatever way the powers of a democratic community may be organized and balanced, then, it will always be extremely difficult to believe what the bulk of the people reject, or to profess what they condemn."
(Tocqueville, p. 330. See also http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/ch3_21.htm.
We gain our perspective on reality from the TV and movies. We obsess about what to wear and what to say. We become preoccupied with our looks, our popularity, our opinions, and our behaviour.
We become fearful, insecure, and divided.
We live in advanced states of self-interest and paranoia that make us ever more suspicious, defensive, and withdrawn.
And there is yet more danger inherent in democracy. Tocqueville notes that things considered, people would rather be equal than free. They would give up freedom before equality. They’d rather defer decisions to a central authority, and in times of war, they are especially willing to sacrifice some of their freedom for tranquility (See Tocqueville, p. 347., or see http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/Detoc/ch4_03.htm).
How does democracy survive against a continual erosion of our rights and freedoms?
In 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote:
"In ages of equality every man naturally stands alone; he has no hereditary friends whose co-operation he may demand, no class upon whose sympathy he may rely; he is easily got rid of, and he is trampled on with impunity. At the present time, an oppressed member of the community has therefore only one method of self-defence: he may appeal to the whole nation, and if the whole nation is deaf to his complaint, he may appeal to mankind. The only means he has of making this appeal is by the press. Thus the liberty of the press is infinitely more valuable among democratic countries than among all others; it is the only cure for the evils that equality may produce. Equality sets men apart and weakens them; but the press places a powerful weapon within every man’s reach, which the weakest and loneliest of them may use."
Tocqueville, p. 365. See also: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/ch4_07.htm.
A free press is the solution to many threats to democracy. As long as people can investigate and bring information to light – and to an audience – corporate and political misdeeds can be exposed .
But the slow creep of changing perceptions enables the erosion of democracy over time through subtle manipulations and the gradual corruption of the status quo.
Is the press still available to us? Our newspapers, televisions, movie theatres, and radio stations are dominated by large corporations, with as much as 75% of prime-time television viewing controlled by the top five (National Post, 12 May 2005, p. FP9).
"In countries where the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people ostensibly prevails, the censorship of the press is not only dangerous, but absurd. When the right of every citizen to a share in the government of society is acknowledged, everyone must be presumed to be able to choose between the various opinions of his contemporaries and to appreciate the different facts from which inferences may be drawn."
Tocqueville, p. 78. See also: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/1_ch11.htm.
Corporate control over the media has evolved to where a large portion of the messages broadcast to us come from a handful of sources.
Corporate influence over our governments and regulators creates an environment where market interests dominate and constrain legislation.
Psychological and behavioural studies combined with ever more sophisticated techniques of propaganda, control, and manipulation make us vulnerable. Add to this a real-time database of ‘market’ information and we seem ripe for takeover by the corporate mindset.
So an Index of all the information out there on the Internet becomes a valuable commodity. After all, it is a record of our interests and our curiosity. It watches us shop, it knows what we watch on TV, and who our friends are. It follows and watches as we browse, and it takes every little thing we write and stores it away for later.
But beyond us as individuals, an Index knows the secrets of other corporations that have been inadvertently let slip, and it snoops in the deepest recesses of governmental and NGO websites seeking out the barest slips of information.
It is a database ripe for mining in inexplicable ways. It cries out to be studied, for analyses to be done. It is a thing much more significant than its utilitarian pretence. It is of inestimable value to the corporations that control it.
But it’s more: as well as being a database about us; it’s a database by us. The Internet is also in a sense, a very democratic press. It stands apart in countering the capture of the traditional media by corporations by giving a voice to everyone who wants to say something.
Thus the Internet is more than a vast knowledgebase: it is a free press, and the Indexes are the entry points to that unfettered universe of individual opinion and knowledge.
Is the corporate – capitalistic – lust for an Index compatible with the public’s need to defend democracy?
It seems doubtful. The mandate of a public corporation is ‘to increase shareholder value’. Even when a company dedicates itself to doing good – or at least, not doing evil – time, different managers, and different viewpoints will test that intent.
Still a place of anarchy and opportunity, if not equality, the Internet provides an outlet for anyone who can afford the basic entry fee. The drawback is that he is lost among multitudes, and there are few ways to draw the attention of any audience, other than a listing in the Indexes.
We need to recognise the Internet as a common public resource and protect it accordingly. Furthermore, we need to protect against the exploitation and control over it against the interests of democracy. One of the greatest point sources of control is in the control of the Indexes that people use to access the Internet.
For self-preservation we have to know what’s happening in our world – the truth – as much as it can be discovered. By relying on others to present us with the truth, we run the risk of hearing only versions of it. The more homogenous, aligned, and limited those versions are, the more we may be approaching a limited perspective instead of the universal truth.
Another danger to this may be that while we are seeing only a reflection from a perspective, others may be seeing more. We become subject to those who control our access to other information.
Morton, Peter. ‘Massive telecom bill failed to deliver new era, U.S. critics say: Sides are lining up to fiercely lobby Capitol Hill’, Thu 12 May 2005, page: FP9. National Post.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. [1835/1840] 1998. Democracy in America. Vols. 1 & 2. Translated by Henry Reeve, Revised by Francis Bowen. Wordsworth Classics of World Literature. Hertfordshire, England.