A far cry from the optimistic sentiment that ran across the emerging net community in the mid Nineties, „freedom of information“ in electronic networks is increasingly viewed as a „security hazard“. Systems of containment are emerging, in which data, but also bodies are directed by architectures of control.
While the EU has decided to scan all immigrants and asylum seekers biometrically in order to be able to track them, and in Britain a 11-year-old girl is expecting a tracking-chip to be implanted under her skin, private prison management companies such as Corrections Corporation of America or Wackenhut are transforming prisons into experimentation grounds for new tracking technologies. Yet by entrusting surveillance to private companies accountability to the political system and its citizens is slowly, but surely disappearing.
Applied to data instead of bodies this trend is called Digital Rights Management (DRM); the privatization of access and control of information. DRM manufacturer and huge media and entertainment corporations seek to turn the infosphere into a controlled environment dominated by so-called „trusted systems“. Systems that can be trusted by the “data lords”, in order to make the Intellectual Property (IP) rights business as profitable as possible.
DRM is set to redesign the entire information landscape with a view to technically enforcing copyrights payment. To that end it tries to turn the accustomed PC into something like a remote-controlled sales terminal. “Who should your computer take its orders from? With a plan they call "trusted computing", large media corporations (including the movie companies and record companies), together with computer companies such as Microsoft and Intel, are planning to make your computer obey them instead of you” warns Richard Stallman of Free Software Foundation.
In a “trusted environment”, the prisoner’s tracking cuff is replaced by watermarks and similar encodings. The rules and standards that will make trusted systems work are established in the exclusive environments of corporations. Yet these standards will soon be decisive for every body, they will shape people’s behavior in a subtle but effective fashion. Once the values and interests have taken on the shape of seemingly neutral technical standards, they will simply be accepted without further questions.
Yet new emerging open spaces are pointing the other way. Numerous initiatives work at revitalizing the idea of the commons, a resource held “in common” that is equally enjoyed by a number of persons. Originally derived from the land law they transfer this concept in a digital context by making available content to the broad public for free. In contrast to the idea of DRM, which creates an elitist society where only those who can afford it are allowed access to information, projects derived from the conception of a commons aim at including rather than excluding as many as possible from the infosphere.
Following this claim a range of initiatives are set to recover open space for information exchange and shake off information handcuffs, not by “breaking” copyright, but by avoiding it in the first place. In science, a recent project is the International Mathematical Union’s global network that recommends its members to publish all research free of charge. Others, such as the German Initiative for Network Information are trying to develop a digital commons for research, bypassing subscription fees that can amount to thousands of Euros for specialized journals and databanks or UNESCO that has recognized the importance of free software for development and dedicated a free software portal.
But besides those more well-known projects there exists a much larger number of smaller, civil-society initiatives of free information sharing that are set to revitalize the commons. Cultural groupware, free software, peer-to-peer platforms are all part of a new appreciation of the digital public domain.
++ LINKS ++
Corrections Corporation of America
Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)
International Mathematical Union
German Initiative for Network Information
UNESCO Free Software Portal