ADVERTISING THE AMERICAN WAY

PHILIP J. CUNNINGHAM



I first encountered Hillary Clinton in China at a reception held at the US Embassy in Beijing in July 1998 when she and her husband, the President, were being feted on a state visit. While the voluble Bill Clinton shook hands and chatted with the guests, she stood back in the shadows, like a wallflower. They went on to enjoy an extended stay in China, comfortably distant from the noise of US internet-driven opprobrium for an alleged scandal that need not be detailed here. In short, she got fried by American Internet freedom and found temporary respite in China. Those were the days when you could escape a vast right-wing conspiracy, the drone attacks of Drudge Reports and the salacious gotcha journalism of CBS and CNN by getting on an airplane.

On February 15, 2011, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech on Internet freedom. Although the Wikileaks case found the US government awkwardly on the “wrong” side of the rousing topic of Internet freedom, she has tried to downplay the obvious hypocrisy of her stance — in short, anything that serves US government interests is enlightened Internet policy — while portraying the Obama political team and its corporate allies as model global citizens on the road to human rights and freedom, never mind the bloody wars raging on in the background.

It used to be thought that what was good for General Motors was good for America. GM, because of the decline of US manufacturing, is a shell of its former self, but Google has emerged as a national mascot, the new pet poodle of American high-tech evangelists. The US promotion of Internet freedom cannot be taken at face value, especially after the frantic efforts made to block and discredit Wikileaks.

Instead, US official rhetoric about Internet freedom is rather code for “do it our way”, which itself can be parsed to mean: “Do as we say, not as we do.”

In fact, Clinton’s latest lecture to the world conflates the idea of Internet freedom with advertising freedom. Her speech is like the start gun in a global race for advertising revenue in which the US has a leg up and has taken an early lead.

What really counts for crony capitalists, inside the Beltway and out, is not so much the freedom of speech but the freedom to advertise, which promotes slavish materialism and ultimately an irresponsible, apolitical way of life. Making the world safe for Facebook, Google, and Yahoo means granting them the freedom to collect and analyze more of your private data in order to their boost ad revenue.

In this context, Hillary Clinton’s speech came off like a partisan pep-talk for US business abroad -- ill-conceived, unnecessary and unbecoming—akin to the diplomatic gaffe made by George Bush Senior in 1992 when he used the presidential pulpit to shill for “Toys R Us” during a Japan summit. To insist that the world wire itself according to US specifications, however, is more than hypocritical. It’s begging for blowback and unintended consequences that go far beyond the indignity of foisting US-style big box shopping on reluctant Japanese consumers.

Granted, America’s top diplomat has a tough job, especially given the precipitous decline in US prestige in the last decade. And a Secretary of State does not enjoy much freedom of speech, as she or he serves at the pleasure of the president, in this case, the hip, hi-tech Barack Obama who utilized Silicon Valley support to get elected President.

There’s something wistful about idyll of a beleaguered Hillary Clinton in Beijing in the summer of 1998, basking in the restful, and respectful attention of her Chinese hosts at a time when America’s nascent Internet was raking her husband over the coals for relations with an intern. Researching the Chinese press at the time for articles in Nieman Reports and the Media Studies Journal, I was surprised at just how “polite” Chinese coverage of US politics was. In contrast to the American media’s mass feeding frenzy on semen-stained dresses and the like, there was nary a mention of Monica Lewinsky in the Chinese press. Now some would say that’s censorship, and by American press standards it might well be. But is an absolute free-for-all the only way to go? Aren’t there also valid questions of decorum and maybe just old-fashioned editing?

One doesn’t have to agree with the particulars of Internet controls in China to agree that the Internet need not open all the floodgates or be ubiquitous or identical in every last corner of the globe in line with Clinton’s proclamation. The call to impose American-style “Internet freedom” on the rest of the world smacks of self-interest dressed up as humanitarian ideology. Far from offering a level playing field, the “free” transmission of information and entertainment as outlined by Ms. Clinton would favor established players with deep pockets and technological prowess, not unlike “free trade”, another American obsession.

In any case, it’s important to distinguish between the free flow of ideas as advocated by upstarts like Wikipedia and Wikileaks, and the corporate giants who rake in the profits while claiming the high ground of Internet evangelism. Facebook is a corporate behemoth, not a pillar of free speech, ditto for Google and Yahoo. These firms examine and manipulate personal details of people’s lives, and are essentially gigantic ad agencies masquerading as communication gurus. No sooner did Google acquire YouTube, a bustling hub of user-donated cultural product, than it started littering the entire site with obnoxious popup ads.

China, like any sovereign state, has the right to resist honey-voiced US calls to adopt a US-style Internet strategy, just as it has the right to keep multinational firms with questionable ethical standards at arm’s length, especially data-mining firms that trade private information for corporate profit.

If the US Internet giants get their way, we will all become as vulnerable as besieged public figures, like Hillary Clinton was during that low point in her husband’s presidency, when hardly a word, movement, transaction or sigh could be uttered without being pored over and analyzed by others.

Bolstered by the elixir of power, Ms. Clinton is now sounding the trumpet in favor of Internet data-miners who are tearing down walls of decorum, stripping away common decency and eroding the integrity of the individual.

Meanwhile, the Internet billionaires are using their new-found ad riches to buy the very privacy for themselves that their business models deny to others. Hidden behind their fortified mansions, teams of bodyguards, legions of lawyers and impenetrable bureaucratic walls, guarded Internet evangelists peddle intrusive technology, stripping away the privacy of the man and woman on the street, putting the hoi polloi on a par with the celebrities of yesteryear, but without the compensatory perks and privileges of celebrity.