But 2011 shows a rather different picture. Governments have to deal with riots in democratic countries at large scales (like we saw in France in 2005/6, Greece in 2010, the UK a few weeks ago) and are struggling with the virtual economy in collapse, having few — if any – tools to deal with them. As governments weaken, and politicians are just replaceable figures without making a serious differences, corporations filled in the void. They never went away in fact; they were just a bit less silent. But it was perhaps 5 years ago, when I had a discussion with an American citizen in Second Life about freedom of expression, and was complaining that some company or other was stifling the right for a user to complain about the service, that I got this shocking answer: “Freedom of expression only applies to citizens relatively to their governments; companies are exempt from that. You sue corporations, and they sue you back for libel, if you have any complaint. Freedom of expression doesn’t apply to them, companies can do whatever they wish”.
I was horrified and rejected the idea immediately. But then I saw how true it actually was. Companies can always hide behind the argument “if you don’t like our policies, you can buy similar services from our competitors — everybody is free to join or leave”. That’s true except in quasi-monopolies. We used to be aware of what the words “abuse of dominant position” meant (I was involved in a few fights in the 1990s because of similar abuses). It was easy when the target was a single company, or a small cartel, clearly dominating a sector of industry. But these days things are not so easy to spot. First, as our world economy becomes more and more about information (another cyberpunk prediction!) and less and less about pushing atoms, there are no “goods” or “products” that one can point a finger to and say, “you’re abusing your position as major supplier of this product”. There are just services. Anyone can set up a search engine. Google just happens to have the most popular one. Are they abusing any “dominant service”? No. Google’s business is not even providing search engines — it’s selling ads. And as an ad seller, they are not the major player, just a major player which, by chance, happens to be the largest digital ad seller. Where is the “dominant position”? What is actually the service that Google provides to “dominate”? It’s way more vague.
And secondly, governments have always been very closely involved with the top corporations and depend more and more on them. During the 1990s, with outsourcing becoming the norm, almost all governments placed themselves in the hands of corporations to provide basic services for their citizens — usually, in far more efficient ways, at a fraction of the cost. Everybody benefited. But in the process, power was diluted. For example, most governments cannot abolish Microsoft Windows from their governmental desktops and install Linux instead — saving taxpayers billions and billions — simply because Microsoft would “threaten” to fire countless employees, forcing governments to support them out of unemployment benefits (this is not hypothetical; I truly saw it happen. IBM and Oracle use similar strategies with the same arguments). So, over the past two decades, the little decision power that governments still had were placed in the hands of megacorps, which, literally speaking, hold them by the balls. And it’s impossible to turn back.
Citizens, of course, vote for governments and can replace them at will. But they cannot replace corporations. You cannot vote a government in that will claim to replace all copies of MS Windows with Linux. No politician can seriously promise that; they know they haven’t even got the slightest glimpse of a chance. So you’re stuck with them and there is no way to complain.
As time goes by, we see how the constitutional limitations on the power of governments — like spying upon their citizens (which requires a court order by the judiciary; governments cannot do that legitimately without a reason), limiting their freedoms, stifling their freedom of expression, controlling their privacy, and so forth — do not apply at all to corporations. Corporations, under their Terms of Service, can pretty much do everything. There are no automatic criminal charges placed against corporations if they violate basic human rights; someone has to complain, someone has to sue them, and that law suit has to be mediatised and win in court. This is harder and harder to do, because the “free press” is less and less free (but strongly controlled by media empires in the hands of a selected few). We still have the Internet to complain — but Facebook and Google can control what is said in their networks. Google is even more scary: you might have a popular blog with millions of readers, but how can you be found if Google removes all links to your blog? This can happen — the technology exists and is used in China. But according to many globe trotters, it is also employed elsewhere: they all report that logging in from different countries show different search results. We sort of get used to it because, well, Google is supposed to be the company that “does no evil”.
The more I hear that phrase, the more I remember the Mars Attacks motto: “We come in peace”. Right…