It is a well-worn adage, in politics as in life, that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. And so it is easy to feel a sense of gratitude at the news that Virgin Trains have decided to cease selling the Daily Mail on its services.
The howls of indignation from the paper are just too ironic, too delicious. After all, what could it be more in favour of than a private company exercising its prerogative to propagate what news it sees fit to. It can be observed that the paper’s advocacy of this moral imperative is particularly pronounced whenever the Leveson Inquiry is brought up. (One is put in mind of the spectacle of hard-core, alt-right libertarians on YouTube who, whenever their videos are hidden by this private company, transmogrify into big state Liberals demanding what they would otherwise consider intolerably intrusive government regulation.)
Here’s the hitch, though: baked into the irony of the situation is the problem that it is by the logic of the right that Virgin is most justified. Essentially, by justifying Virgin’s behaviour we affirm that logic – and that is dangerous.
The right can justify this act of corporate censorship and remain consistent – we cannot.
Despite a Virgin spokesman half-heartedly mentioning “one paper sold for every four trains” when the story broke, this was an ideological decision – that much is clear from the internal memo that began this sordid affair. In it, Drew MacMillan, Head of Colleague Communication and Engagement, wrote that the Daily Mail was “not compatible with the VT brand” and so would be dropped. There was no economic rationalisation on display here.
The very same accusations of corporate censorship would be raised if it was a shibboleth of our own being assailed. Indeed, this is a matter of empirical fact. When suspicions emerged that LGBT content was disproportionately more likely than heteronormative content to have age restrictions placed on it by moderators on YouTube – not even be deleted – there was much talk of censorship. More widely, the concept of corporate censorship has had currency on the left for a while. In Naomi Klein’s seminal No Logo, there is an entire chapter entitled “Corporate Censorship”.
Setting aside the matter of ideological consistency, we must consider the practical implications of this normalisation of corporate censorship at a time when net-neutrality hangs perilously in abeyance. While the decision in December of the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to kill off net-neutrality does not overwrite it in the UK, it is a poor portent for it. The affirmation of net-neutrality in the UK is predicated on the EU’s Regulation on Open Internet Access. Despite the government’s commitment to transfer all EU regulations into the statute book with its Great Repeal Bill, it will become eminently repeatable where once it was not. We remain under a Conservative government, with all the disdain for “red-tape” and unthinking emulation of the United States that this entails.
We should be especially concerned when it is Liam Fox who is entrusted with negotiating future trade deals for this country in his capacity as Secretary of State for International Trade. This is a man who set up a forum to bring Conservatives and Republicans closer together, the Atlantic Bridge, and thought it such socially useful work to claim for it the status of a charity – a move so egregious the Charity Commission had to eventually withdraw it. Could you count on such a man to stand up for the regulatory vouchsafe of net-neutrality as the United States demands entry into the UK market on favourable terms for their corporate paymasters? An isolated post-Brexit Britain has little leverage to begin with and the Trumpist United States even less inclination to go easy.
It is not just the death of net-neutrality as a prelude to outright corporate censorship that should concern us, but also the way it would facilitate digital monopolisation – both, after all, would have the effect of silencing new or dissenting voices. It is in the nature of organisations such as Virgin to synergise across its divisions, cut-out competitors and create what Naomi Klein describes as a “self-sustaining lifestyle web”. Sir Richard Branson imagined not so much customers as branded serfs who would “cross the Atlantic on a Virgin plane, listen to Virgin records and keep their money with a Virgin bank”. Note how Virgin operated in the 1990s. Both record label and retailer, it used its Megastore to push its talent over that of other labels and mould consumer choice. This endeavour was ill-fated, however how successful would it have been if Virgin had controlled the means by which you consumed all media? Given that the Virgin brand now operates as an ISP (Internet Service Provider), we may be about to find out.
Virgin Media is itself a subsidiary of Liberty Global, the international telecommunications giant. Also owned by Global is ITV. In other words, Liberty Global controls both a sources of news and what is for many the principal means of consuming it. Absent any enforcement of data-neutrality, Liberty Global and Virgin could put new sources of mews into slow-lanes, if not cut them out completely, and promote its own concerns.
Virgin already practises a form of data-interference. As a mobile phone network, it privileges some services – such as Twitter, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger – over others by allowing them to be streamed by subscribers on smartphones without taking up mobile data. Ominously, it is far from the only mobile phone network to engage in this kind of practice.
Given the opportunity to properly breach data-neutrality, Virgin would eagerly oblige. As former Virgin CEO. Neil Berkett, remarked in 2008, “this net-neutrality thing is a load of bollocks.”
The prosaic reality is that it would not take a conspiracy of corporate censorship to stymie alternative, left-wing news sources. A system of incentives and favours that could deny it the room to cultivate a following would be enough. By allowing Virgin to censor without censure, we normalise data interference and make such a system more likely. We are like peasants appealing to an enlightened despot to put right the depredations of an inconvenient bourgeoisie with little regard for the long duree. Are we so pathetic that we cannot organise independently?
So smile now left-friends, but when the corporate brownshirts knock at our door at the dead of night we will wonder why we did not say anything when they came for the Daily Mail.