Understanding of the means of communication as a world property – a public and globally shared resource – is fundamental to how a political economist approaches the Internet. Dallas Smythe, a founder of this approach, began from this standpoint to identify how such essential resources were the subject of constant power struggles, given relentless efforts to transform a world public property into one where private ownership and control dominates. Rather than taking this as an inevitable, acceptable or desirable outcome, political economists question what is generally taken for granted by orienting the focus on the social relations, social processes and social changes – and thus the power struggles – that constitute the Internet as one of today’s most important forms of world property. This chapter begins with a definition of political economy and explains four fundamental aspects that mark a political economy approach to the Internet. It then distinguishes between historical and current variations to provide an overview of examples moving from the general to specific. This is followed by an explanation of commodification, spatialization and structuration – three social processes that are central to the field – as applied to the Internet. It concludes with a discussion of major directions and distinctive advances in a political economy approach to the Internet today.
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