Herbert Schiller’s chapter “Data Deprivation,” from his 1996 work Information Inequalities, focuses on the great shift in power and control from state to private actors, resulting in a massive consolidation of power in the corporate sector, particularly over the control and dissemination of communication and information (43). Almost 15 years old, this essay draws out the peculiar of this new power structure and highlights the disturbing characteristics of that shift, including the crystallization of the already-underway processes (in the United States and, by extension, abroad, wherever the transnational influence of these companies reaches) such media conglomeration (44), leaving important informational functions, vital to a vibrant democracy, in the hands of a relatively elite few with considerable agendas of their own.
The results of the shift from state to private hands has immense and critically important ramifications, Schiller convincingly argues. One major arena of this transformation occurs in the context of an increase in the technologically-facilitated disappearance of some information (such as the case of that at the federal level in the context of changing administrations) (48), and the lack of transparency and accountability under new privatized paradigms where private corporations stand in for the government/state. Using techniques such as privatization, contracting and deregulation, corporate contractors have taken on the process of creating, managing, storing and disseminating (or hiding, in some cases) vast amounts of information. Indeed, the recent “Top Secret America” report in the Washington Post reveals that there are now over 2000 private firms engaged in data analysis for the purposes of national security alone, with little, if any, public redress available to learn more or understand what these firms do.
Meanwhile, as the government cedes control over the production and dissemination of material to corporations that treat it as commodity (46) and then are under no obligation to engage in transparency, the corporations themselves have seen a major rise in their own profile, to the point that, as Schiller describes, “corporate speech has become a dominant discourse, nationally and internationally…”, forcing individual speech aside or drowning it out completely (45). This trend has recently reached its apex, resulting in a Supreme Court ruling that has now codified the “right” of a corporation to “speak” politically (and monetarily) at a scale no individual citizen could ever reasonably hope to attain (c.f. the Citizens United case of 2010).
Schiller’s view of the near future he did not live to see may, at first blush, seem unusually prescient. Yet his clairvoyance stems simply from his engaging in tracing the logical conclusion of the tendencies he identified, in the mid-90s and much earlier, of consolidation, conglomeration, and shifting control across the military-academic-indusrial complex. Many of these tendencies have yet to fully play out and continue on today, particularly in the context of the Internet.
Robert Darnton is an historian and the Director of the Library at Harvard University whose work has focused on the history of the book, primarily in 18th century France, about which he is an expert. As such, he takes a long view, therefore, of books and book history as they pertain to the culture. His interest in and ability to dissect the complexities of the Google Book Settlement (GBS) make this article particularly helpful to those trying to get the big picture view of Google’s voracious program of digitizing the contents of the major academic libraries in the United States and elsewhere.
As the program has developed, critics have become concerned about its size and scope, lack of transparency and articulation of long-term plans. Further, the issue of so-called “orphan works,” those works that have fallen out of copyright protection and are therefore without rights holders, as well as hints of monopoly practices have been of particular concern. Furthermore, Darnton highlights a more generalized concern about Google, in general, which is their lack of commitment to the public good on any long-term basis. Despite their company motto that espouses do-gooding as the primary mission statement (“Don’t be evil”), Google remains a for-profit private entity: “as a commercial enterprise, Google’s first duty is to provide a profit for its shareholders, and the settlement leaves no room for representation of libraries, readers, or the public in general” (Darnton 2009).
As Google Books has turned its eye offshore, some of its potential target markets and sites of content, France and Germany, responded from a state level, with typically high-brow/high-culture arguments appealing to each country’s long history of resisting the commodification and control of its cultural output by others. The case of France is particularly reminiscent of another attempt by that nation to resist U.S. corporate digital hegemony, constructing the Minitel, a major national digital communications infrastructure and platform, in large part to resist the encroachment of IBM.
Yet the US government has finally, albeit weakly, gotten into the anti-GBS act. Instead of the high-culture protectionist rhetoric of Germany and France, the Department of Justice preferred an appeal to free markets. Darnton finds irony in “foreign governments defending a European notion of culture against the capitalistic inroads of an American company.”
One of the DoJ’s main concerns centered around the issue of orphan works, which, in Google’s original plans, would simply be sucked up into the GBS, with the potential to be sold back, via the subscription service it is planning around the project, rather than relegating it to a place in the commons. The new solution in GBS 2.0 does little to resolve the issue, as the proposed opt-in vs. the current opt-out paradigm, remains unenforced. Google can obtain content unless the creator(s) opt out. If a creator cannot be located, or does not know to object, the material is considered fair game for inclusion, and Google can happily digitize, repackage and sell the material. This turns the GBS situation into one of _obligatory_ produsage, where the seeming nuance of “opt-in” vs. “opt-out” actually becomes the key factor. And, once again, the regime of contracts seems to trump other regimes and operate as de facto law.
Darnton, writing in November of last year, proposes state intervention in the form of a national digital library, as a viable alternative to the GBS. Reading now, such a notion seems like a naive and distant dream, just slightly less than a year later, in the midst of economic meltdown, gulf oil disaster, unrelenting war and the biggest release of digital state documents in American history – an event which will undoubtedly sour the government against any new entrees into facilitating digital data access by the people. Meanwhile, Google will chug merrily along, ingesting unquantifiable amounts of material into its insatiable mouth.