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Free Flow of Information and Profit?

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Last month's speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued for a global "right to connect" to the Internet in light of the ongoing Middle Eastern turmoil. Such a speech may now be an annual tradition, as the US Government is now embarked on a concerted offensive to shape the terms on which the Internet business proceeds.

Responses to the speech have been mostly approving by, for example, applauding Clinton's new embrace of complexity. But some voices, like insider Ethan Zuckerman, criticized the lack of attention to US corporations as the actors we are really discussing.

As Tunisian blogger Sami Ben Gharbia put it last year, just as activists are using Facebook and Twitter to organize, "most of the tools used to muzzle our online free expression and monitor our activities on the Internet are [also] being engineered and sold by American and Western corporations." This is what we might call the "platform" or "tool" critique of the right to connect policy. It doesn't go far enough to explain the role of corporations in the genesis of this policy agenda.

More than being vendors to both sides, leading tech companies are increasingly concerned about the free flow of information, and they have mobilized federal agencies across the administration to support them. The Commerce Department's Internet Policy Task Force last year launched a formal inquiry into "global free flow of information on the Internet." Of particular interest are "the impact that restrictions on the flow of information over the Internet have on American businesses." The Department of State has established a "Net Freedom Task Force," and Google released its own policy paper on the topic, charging that more than 40 governments now restrict online information flow - a tenfold increase from a decade ago. Its not just Google: a diverse array of US-based transnational companies has actually moved to express its self-interest in this and related Commerce Department proceedings.

The free flow of information precept attaches more specifically to US history. It was crafted by US corporate and governmental elites to serve foreign policy goals over many decades. Early in the 20th century, free flow was used to spearhead the interests of US submarine cable companies and, above all, US news agencies such as AP and UP (perhaps the Google of their day), which were trying to gain entry into markets controlled by entrenched European cartels. After World War II, vested in the raiment of human rights, free flow was used as an ideological club against the Soviet Union and China - even as it also served to help prise open "Third World" markets for cultural commodities including films, musical recordings, television programs and news.

Herbert I. Schiller underlined thirty-five years ago, at the height of the struggle for a New International Information Order, that "freedom from the free flow" would be an essential prerequisite of national self-determination in culture and economic development. The historical moment of what Vijay Prashad usefully calls the "Third World Political Project" has ended, and many now question whether the nation-state may or should constitute the basic frame for policymaking; but the need for freedom of expression as a majoritarian right rather than a corporate prerequisite remains.

Two things are noteworthy about the current resurgence of the rhetoric of free flow. First, the extent to which US and European transnational companies have come to depend on extraterritorial networks beggars comparison with any previous era. Free flow today is less about exports and trade than about the minute-to-minute functioning of production and finance in an era of networked cross-border value chains. Restrictions placed on networks for almost any reason threaten profits and accumulation strategies as never before. These restrictions thus attain a newfound economic urgency.

Second, the primacy of economic self-interest is not well-camouflaged, as it used to be, when free flow was suffused with talk of human rights. The talk is still there, but major institutions make scant pretenses about their strategic purpose. "Limitations on the free flow of information and restrictive Internet regulations," writes Google, "are a clear threat to open markets."

We'll be hearing more about this in weeks and months to come.

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