The False Ideals of the Web
WE who love the Internet love the fact that so many people contribute to it. It’s hard to believe that skeptics once worried about whether anyone would have anything worthwhile to say online.
There is, however, an outdated brand of digital orthodoxy that ought to be retired. In this worldview, the Internet is a never-ending battle of good guys who love freedom against bad guys like old-fashioned Hollywood media moguls. The bad guys want to strengthen copyright law, and make it impossible to post anonymously copied videos and stories.
The proposed Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, which is being considered in the House while the Senate looks at a similar bill, is deemed the worst thing ever. Popular sites like Wikipedia staged a blackout on Wednesday to protest the bills. Google put a black banner over its name. Nothing quite like that has ever happened before. This is extraordinary, because it shows that belief in the priority of fighting SOPA is so absolute as to trump the stated nonpartisan missions of these sites.
The legislation has indeed included draconian remedies in various drafts, so I join my colleagues in criticizing the bills. But our opposition has become so extreme that we are doing more harm than good to our own cause. Those rare tech companies that have come out in support of SOPA are not merely criticized but barred from industry events and subject to boycotts. We, the keepers of the flame of free speech, are banishing people for their speech. The result is a chilling atmosphere, with people afraid to speak their minds.
Our melodrama is driven by a vision of an open Internet that has already been distorted, though not by the old industries that fear piracy.
For instance, until a year ago, I enjoyed a certain kind of user-generated content very much: I participated in forums in which musicians talked about musical instruments.
For years, I was warned that old-fashioned control freaks like media moguls might separate me from my beloved forums. Perhaps a forum would be shut down because it was hosted on some server with pirated content.
While acknowledging that this is a possible scenario, a very different factor — proprietary social networking — is ending my freedom to participate in the forums I used to love, at least on terms I accept. Like many other forms of contact, the musical conversations are moving into private sites, particularly Facebook. To continue to participate, I’d have to accept Facebook’s philosophy, under which it analyzes me, and is searching for new ways to charge third parties for the use of that analysis.
At the moment that wouldn’t bother me much, because I know a lot of people at Facebook and I know they are decent. But I’ve seen what happens to companies over time. Who knows who will be using my data in 20 years?
You might object that it’s all based on individual choice. That argument ignores the consequences of networks, and the way they function. After a certain point choice is reduced.
And it’s not Facebook’s fault! We, the idealists, insisted that information be able to flow freely online, which meant that services relating to information, instead of the information itself, would be the main profit centers. Some businesses do sell content, but that doesn’t address the business side of everyday user-generated content.
The adulation of “free content” inevitably meant that “advertising” would become the biggest business in the open part of the information economy. Furthermore, that system isn’t so welcoming to new competitors. Once networks are established, it is hard to reduce their power. Google’s advertisers, for instance, know what will happen if they move away. The next-highest bidder for each position in Google’s auction-based model for selling ads will inherit that position if the top bidder goes elsewhere. So Google’s advertisers tend to stay put because the consequences of leaving are obvious to them, whereas the opportunities they might gain by leaving are not.
The obvious strategy in the fight for a piece of the advertising pie is to close off substantial parts of the Internet so Google doesn’t see it all anymore. That’s how Facebook hopes to make money, by sealing off a huge amount of user-generated information into a separate, non-Google world. Networks lock in their users, whether it is Facebook’s members or Google’s advertisers.
This belief in “free” information is blocking future potential paths for the Internet. What if ordinary users routinely earned micropayments for their contributions? If all content were valued instead of only mogul content, perhaps an information economy would elevate success for all. But under the current terms of debate that idea can barely be whispered.
To my friends in the “open” Internet movement, I have to ask: what did
you think would happen? We in Silicon Valley undermined copyright to
make commerce become more about services instead of content — more about
our code instead of their files. The inevitable endgame was always that
we would lose control of our own personal content, our own files. We
haven’t just weakened Hollywood and old-fashioned publishers. We’ve