Backstory: The Elon Musk Milestone on the Internet’s Superprofit Highway

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

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Remember the term “information superhighway” which gained currency in the early 1990s and held out the promise of access to the internet to every American? Or, to rewind a wee bit to 1989, remember the system that Tim Berners-Lee, sometimes termed the father of the internet, created for data sharing purposes that he named the World Wide Web?

From the vantage point of early cyberspace explorers, the internet was regarded, by and large, as a gift to humanity (starting of course with those located in the West, of course).  Berners-Lee even released the source code to make what quickly became known as the Web open to everybody and by that one act hoped to expedite the creation of the information superhighway. 

That’s when the nerds in Silicon Valley got into the act. It wasn’t long before a tech company like Google was filing a patent for wearable voice and one like Amazon came up with a patent for tech that could glean your mood shifts by just listening to your voice. These were all part of a gold rush to capture and monetise personal data.

So what happened to all those old ideals of access and accountability? Big capital came in the way, that’s what, and the rest is no mystery. Journalist Franklin Foer (quoted in a sharp little book What Tech Calls Thinking) put it succinctly: Silicon Valley companies, he said, “have a set of ideals, but they also have a business model. They end up reconfiguring your ideals in order to justify their business model”.

Today, we have gone past the stage signalled by John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney in their brilliant and prophetic 2011 essay, ‘The Internet’s Unholy Marriage to Capitalism’. In it, they had pointed to the paradox of the Internet:

“What seemed to be an increasingly open public sphere, removed from the world of commodity exchange, seems to be morphing into a private sphere of increasingly closed, proprietary, even monopolistic markets.”

More recently, Wendy Liu, a software engineer who once founded a startup and shut it down, noted in her riveting book, Abolish Silicon Valley,

“We need to see Silicon Valley not as a unique aberration, but instead as a logical expression of technological development under capitalism …The more advanced the technology, and the more money behind it, the more it begins to seep into everyday life.”

A decade after the Foster-McChesney essay, tech monopolies are threatening the ground on which we stand. Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter – that fancied itself as a “town square” – marks just another milestone on this superprofit highway (‘From Free Speech to Conflicting Business Interests, What Elon Musk’s Twitter Move Portends’, April 26). For something like $ 44 billion – you have to be the richest man in the world to have such cash – Musk has been able to convert a platform designed to be a “town square” into what could in time be a personal town mansion for a select few. Of course we still don’t know how Musk’s rather spaced out bent of mind will play this, but it is not impossible that Twitter’s profile as a public good, as a forum purporting to empower ordinary individuals, may come up against a hard and very tall wall. 

Musk is no philanthropist. He is in the game to make bucket-loads of cash. That also goes for those who have assisted him in financing the Twitter acquisition – an assorted bunch of some 18 entities which includes a Saudi prince. It is they along with Musk who will decide how Twitter shapes up because investor money is never a gift without wires.

Also read: Backstory: The Mob-Making Media Machine

Tall walls and walled gardens are not alien to the Silicon Valley scheme of things. We still remember, do we not, how Facebook tried to capture the Indian market by offering what it called “Free Basics” – essentially a pared down version of the Internet curated by Facebook (now renamed Meta), to suit its business model. Fortunately, that move was defeated thanks to some very youthful and lively public activism. But a new Twitter built on a subscription model, or one which sells user data more creatively, may be unsalvageable.

Today’s India’s 1.4 billion people have been placed on this superprofit highway to fend for themselves. As consumer-users in the world’s second largest internet market, they have emerged as persons of interest to the Silicon Valley toffs. Enabling them is a government that has consistently worked towards synchronising the interests of Big Tech, Big Capital – and Big Media. 

Few politicians have been able to draw as much political and electoral capital from this synergy as Prime Minister Narendra Modi. One of the factors highlighted for India’s poor showing in the Reporter Sans Frontier’s World Press Index was in fact “concentration of ownership” in the media. RSF noted that “the Reliance Industries group led by Mukesh Ambani, now a personal friend of Modi’s…owns more than 70 media outlets that are followed by at least 800 million Indians”.

Incidentally, Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance and Viacom18 recently entered into a Rs 13,500-crore strategic partnership with Bodhi Tree Systems in a bid to emerge as India’s largest TV and digital streaming companies. Bodhi Tree Systems, incidentally, is a newly-formed platform set up by two prominent Big Media figures – James Murdoch, the younger son of Rupert Murdoch, who once headed 21st Century Fox, and Uday Shankar, former chairperson of Star India.

Mukesh Ambani, chairman and managing firector of Reliance Industries, gestures as he answers a question during a media interaction in New Delhi, India, June 15, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abid

If Mukesh Ambani can do it, can India’s richest man Gautam Adani be far behind?

Adani Enterprises Ltd (AEL) has now conceived of a gigantic project that could leave its footprint on every kind of media activity in the country, from advertising and publishing to broadcasting and media distribution. The process of buying up shares in various television and print companies across the country is now carrying on at a hectic pace and before long the Indian public will wake up to the reality of a freshly-minted media baron of gargantuan proportions with the closest connections to the ruling party.

The implications of the emergence of these money-fuelled, tech-driven monopolies on the media horizon like a dark tide are enormous, starting with the information they may choose to put out. It raises a question mark over whether authentic information will even be valued in future journalism. A recent publication, ‘Politics of Disinformation’ brought out by Future of India Foundation (Free Speech Vs Disinformation Control’: Report Says False Binary Serves Social Media Sites’, May 6) argues that social media platforms (from which a great many mainstream media stories are drawn) have little use for credible information. For them, “amplification is driven by engagement instead of the quality of content or the trustworthiness of the content’s sources” – and it is amplification that brings in the advertising rupee.

So is there a way out? Liu seems to think there is, which is why she came up with an audacious title like Abolish Silicon Valley for her book. She writes, “The aim of abolishing Silicon Valley is… to diminish the power that money holds over our lives.”

That may seem too fantastic a dream in a world where the world’s richest man has just grabbed a major social media platform, but as Liu goes on to say, “the point of the demand is to illustrate that the systems that govern our world are constructed”. An important possibility inherent in this formulation is that they can, therefore, also be taken apart.


Fact finding by citizens… because the authorities don’t care

Two pieces carried in The Wire recently highlighted the importance of civil society actors taking upon themselves the task of inquiring into developments of public concern. The first, Cops Suppressed News on Khargone Man’s Death to Ease Way for Demolition Drive’: Fact-Finding Team’ (April 28), was conducted by a body of eight political parties that had visited the violence-torn Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh on April 25. Its 16-page report noted that “officials holding constitutional posts are breaking every law of the rulebook”. It also noted that the retributive action of demolition was carried out by the state government against those not involved in any way in the violence and who were overwhelmingly Muslim. It highlighted an aspect that was not made evident in media reporting – that the districts of Khargone and Barwani overlap the region where the ruling BJP had lost nine of the 10 seats in the 2018 assembly elections in MP. 

Even more disturbing was the fact that there was an attempt by the local police to delay revealing the circumstances of the death of Ibris Khan, the first casualty of the Khargone violence. Even the state chief minister and home minister were not told about it. The fact-finding team raised an important question: why did the police not file a murder case involving Ibris Khan and instead file a case of ‘unnatural death’ despite the postmortem report confirming homicide? The Madhya Pradesh government needs to answer this.

Also read: Backstory: Islamophobia Permeates the Air But For Media It’s Business as Usual

The second piece, ‘How the Jahangirpuri Demolition Destroyed Lives of India’s Poorest Women‘ (April 29), captured the voices of those who were the hardest hit in the Jahangirpuri demolitions of April 20 – and the least heard – the women of the neighbourhood. 

Not only does the innate decency of these women come through in their words – “Would we ever try and put our flag on a mandir? Never!” – their hard scrabble existence becomes visible. “We came from there to earn a living. Picking and clearing your garbage. We work hard. To support our families…See the rented cubby holes where we live.” These were women who were born here but were suddenly labeled as “outsiders”. 

What also comes through in this investigation is that today these women face an absolutely uncertain future with many of their male relatives in jail and the base of their subsistence – trading in waste – broken. The national capital spared a glance at their lives for a brief span while the bulldozers went about their crushing mission, but it has now forgotten them. Who then will help them get back to a modicum of normalcy? There is nobody really for them, and that is why a fact-finding report of this kind becomes crucial. 


Decoding the hate around a conference

The vicious trolling of, and issuing of death threats to organisers of an online academic conference, ‘Dismantling Global Hindutva’, held last September, has been much commented upon. As the Washington Post reported at that time, nearly a million angry emails were dispatched to various universities. What explains this extraordinary flow of vituperation? Three scholar-researchers – based respectively in the History Department, the Journalism School and the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia University – decided to revisit the data to understand the motivations and the modus operandi of the hate brigade (‘Targeted Harassment of Academics by Hindutva: A Twitter Analysis of the India-US Connection’). Their intention was to “open up new conversations within and outside the academy on this pernicious attack on academic freedom”.

The findings were striking – for instance, the work of posting and re-posting has been done the old-fashioned way – not through automated bots but through the hard labour of bhakts working online, and they include some familiar ones like Kapil Mishra and Kanchan Gupta. Yet, the full picture of the network was difficult to unearth on Twitter, since it drew on a mélange of platforms including WhatsApp, Meta and Instagram. 

Some 63,308 unique tweets and 419,164 unique retweets were sent out into cyber space. One of the interesting findings was the list of hashtags employed. As the authors put it: “We can already see… several important themes: an idea of ‘Hinduphobia’ and claims of ‘racism’ alongside positive assertions of ‘SantanDharma’ or ‘HinduRashtra’ — themselves claims of an expansive, imperial and eternal religious state.”

According to the authors, the study demonstrated “the expansive mobilisation of Twitter to create an ecology of hate targeting voices which denounce Hindutva and the power of a select group of verified users to shape the discourse… Once constituted, the online Hindutva ecosystem has a long tail, which allows it to move across mediums — cable news, online publications, IRL events — and builds into a crescendo adding more and more events, fabricated ‘outrages’, and claims of existential danger (to the majority).”


Not the constitution, but the Bulldozer

Malini Bhattacharya, President of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, sent across a statement. An excerpt:

It seems that today, not the book of the constitution but the bulldozer has become the symbol of the state. It has become the symbol not only of the overt agenda of terror practised against the Muslim community by the powers heading the state, but of their deep hatred of labouring people and their determination to wrest whatever rights such toilers may have gained in the past through bitter struggles. Women become some of the worst targets of this both on account of the religious faith they hold and on account of their struggle for bare economic survival at a time when Covid has enforced a severe cut in their family income. Jahangirpuri in Delhi is but an instance of this.

The families living here are of so little consequence that the odd jobs and the small roadside trade they are forced to survive on have to be carried out on their own doorsteps. The state provides them no other space. The state provides them no alternative means of subsistence. Some of these people, all Indian citizens, may have been occupying this space after their eviction from another part of the national capital some years ago presumably in the name of development. Because they are so inconsequential, this meagre space where they live and work, their household belongings and savings are now to be demolished because they are said to be illegal encroachers; in addition they are to be wrongfully  marked out as ‘dangerous’ ‘anti-national’ elements at the behest of local BJP chieftains…”


Adivasi Dalits demand a dignified life

Demands put forward by the Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan:

“On May 2, over 1,500 Adivasi women and men of Jagrit Adivasi Dalit Sangathan organised a rally and an aam sabha at Barwani, Madhya Pradesh, to mark the International Labour Day. They collectively declared their intent to continuously and constitutionally wage struggles against brutal exploitation and violence and to assert their right to a dignified life. Adivasis in the region are being pushed into bonded labour due to indebtedness and poverty that stem from the rampant agrarian crisis and increasing unemployment. Over 400 Adivasis recently escaped bondage and returned to their homes and have submitted complaints to the district administration and police at Barwani, demanding action against illegal contractors and factory owners who forced them into bondage. However, no action has been taken on these complaints so far by the administration.

“They also highlighted that the recent increase in NREGA wages, which currently stands at Rs 204 a day in Madhya Pradesh, is inadequate in proportion to the rapidly increasing cost of living. Even these wages are being denied to workers through fraudulent ‘valuation’ by the administration, drastically exacerbating the situation. They demand that the government expand NREGA and provide work for more than 100 days, and increase wages to at least Rs 600 a day.”


Arbitrary IT Act

The Wire has consistently expressed its strong misgivings over the provisions of the Information Technology Rules, 2021 – and for very good reason, it seems.

Last week, it received a message from Twitter stating that it had received a request from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology regarding a tweet put out by The Wire, claiming that it violated the IT Rules. The tweet in question was put out on March 8, alerting readers to a story carried in The Wire. It went: “Ahead of the counting of votes on Thursday, March 10, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav has raised sensational claims of ‘EVM fraud’ and ‘vote theft’ in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi.

Subsequent to The Wire receiving this intimation from Twitter and a complaint from “GOI” together with identical one from @GoI_MeitY on the same tweet, it responded to the Ministry and its minister thus: “Can @AshwiniVaishnaw tell us how reporting allegations that an opposition leader has made to the media violates the IT Act?”

It raised a very important additional question: “Can such government be trusted with the new IT Rules which give it powers to delete content it says is unlawful?”

Is it any wonder then that India’s 2022 ranking is on skid row (‘India’s 2022 Ranking in Press Freedom Falls to 150 From 142: RSF’, May 3)?

Write to ombudsperson@thewire.in