[Air-L] Privacy Buzz

Andrejevic, Mark mark-andrejevic at uiowa.edu
Tue Feb 16 18:56:34 PST 2010

Thanks to Jean for this post, which opens up the big questions, in particular: "How might we ask to be addressed as citizens instead or as well?" One of the things that has struck me about Google for some time now is its ambition to take over functions that I think of as being appropriate for public utility providers or public service providers rather than commercial entities. Its ambition, for example, to serve as a global digital library, or as a high-speed broadband provider for the US or as the (e)mail service and document storage service for educational institutions, and so on. In its own upbeat way Google is the uber-privatizer of the neoliberal era. And in some ways its provision of "free" services makes it come to feel more like a public utility than a cutthroat commercial entity -- it's not (directly) selling us anything, but providing us with seemingly free services the way other public service entities do. When I see it functioning this way, it just becomes so tempting to fantasize about taking it over and turning it into a public utility or a public service corporation. I understand the shortcomings of doing this with respect to competition-fueled innovation (and the fact that utilities tend not to operate at the transnational level). But there would be certain advantages in terms of transparency, accountability, and cross-subsidization (depending on the kind of tax or fee system that could be used to support it). Not to mention that it wouldn't need to store and capture all the data it now collects for commercial purposes or to experiment with ways to use this information to promote consumption of various kinds. I think freely available broadband should be constructed along the lines of a public utility -- but Google is ahead of the game, already considering how it might provide "free" (commercially supported) broadband, thereby not only increasing its audience, but claiming the tremendous amounts of data that it will thereby be able to collect. It's hard to imagine that the payoff for collecting and using this info would offset the costs of storing it, but that, of course, is the wager of the emerging commercial model. It seems to have worked out for Google so far.

In any case, the internet itself suggests that our imagined possibilities for the provision of digital services needn't be limited to the horizons of the commercial marketplace. It seems worth resisting critiques that take this horizon as a given.

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