We are engaged in an information war. During the cold war we did a great job in getting America’s message out. After the Berlin Wall fell we said ‘OK fine, enough of that, we did it, we’re done. ‘ And, unfortunately we’re paying a big price for it. And, our private media can not fill that gap . . .
We are in an information war, and we are losing that war. I’ll be very blunt in my assessment. Al Jazeera is winning. The Chinese have opened up a global English language and multi-language television network. The Russians have opened up an English network. I’ve seen it in a few countries and it’s quite instructive . . .
We are in information war and we cannot assume that this youth bulge that exists not just in the middle east but in so many parts of the world really knows much about us. I mean we think they know us and reject us, I would argue the really don’t know very much about who we are. (emphasis added)
It’s Rupert Murdoch’s Internet, you just live in it – or so Murdoch argues in his World Media Summit speech. PaidContent.org has posted a transcript of the speech Murdoch delivered in Beijing on 10/09/09. It’s a three part speech with one message: if you use the Internet, whether you’re the People’s Republic of China or Internet users in the U.S., you’re probably stealing his property (or at least devaluing it). A defense of (his) property rights that concludes with an ironic plea for “our planet” to be as borderless as . . . the Internet (cue the Twilight Zone intro).
To put the speech in some context, the keynote was delivered at the Word Media Summit to an audience of mostly Chinese business people. The Word Media Summit was a two day conference organized by some of the world’s largest news organizations: Xinhua News (China), News Corporation, Associated Press, Reuters, ITAR-TASS (Russia), Kyodo News (Japan), BBC, Turner Broadcasting System, and Google. As Murdoch notes in his introduction, his speech aimed to divide the “digital world” into three parts:
How media is being transformed… how the Chinese media can take advantage of that transformation…and some steps necessary to ensure that the Chinese people are in a position to realize their potential.
I found the section dedicated to attacking “content kleptomaniacs” to be the most interesting. This user-bashing is nothing new, of course, as Murdoch has been a prominent advocate of paid-for Internet content (see Grinch Alert: Rupert Murdoch). What’s interesting is how much this speech reminded me of Bill Gates’ “Open Letter to Hobbyists,” where Gates demanded that computer hobbyists “pay up” for “stealing” his software. This letter was penned back in 1976, when software was widely considered to be free (while hardware, services, and manuals were something you paid for). In his letter, Gates’ argued that software must be proprietary and paid for to qualitatively improve. . . you know, so people could pay gobs of money for “quality” software like Windows Vista.
Back to Murdoch. In his “how media is being transformed” section of the speech, he argues:
Of course there should be a price paid for quality content, and yet large media organizations have been submissive in the face of the flat-earthers who insisted that all content should be free all the time. The sun does not orbit the earth, and yet this was precisely the premise that the press passively accepted, even though there have been obvious signs that readers recognize the reality that they should pay a price.
There are many readers who believe that they are paying for content when they sign up with an internet service provider, presuming that they have bought a ticket to a content buffet. That misconception thrived on the silence of inarticulate institutions which were unable to challenge the fallacies and humbug of the e-establishment.
The value of content has been volatile in the past decade but we are entering another decisive phase in which device makers are again courting the creators of content. I have sensed that shift in recent days during my travels in Japan and South Korea where I met some of the world’s leading electronics manufacturers. These companies don’t want their customers to be served a diet of digital dross, and yet that will be the inevitable consequence if the worth of content and creativity are not appreciated.
The Philistine phase of the digital age is almost over. The aggregators and the plagiarists will soon have to pay a price for the co-opting of our content. But if we do not take advantage of the current movement toward paid-for content, it will be the content creators, the people in this hall, who will pay the ultimate price and the content kleptomaniacs will triumph. (emphasis added)
Like Gates’ before him, Murdoch willfully ignores the unwaged labor that he so handsomely profits from. Murdoch sees News Corp, AP, BBC, Xinhua, and the like, as the only rightful (and thus recognized) producers of content – just as Gates sees Microsoft’s hired programmers as the only rightful producers of his software. But what about the millions of MySpace users who freely produce untold volumes of content that News Corp then monetizes for a hefty profit? What about all the blogs that News Corps’ journalists read and take information from without so much as a citation, never mind compensation. What about all the people that freely participate in beta-testing Microsoft’s software and the millions of software “users” who report problems and freely contribute their time and energy to improving Microsoft’s content? If it’s obvious that “there should be a price paid for quality content” — which I’m willing to support — then how much will News Corp be paying for all the free quality content it uses, and how will it compensate all the unwaged labor it uses?
Kevin Kelly’s “We Are the Web” essay in Wired is instructive here. As Kelly notes, ‘in the beginning’ big corporations were unwilling to invest in the Internet because they felt it would be too expensive to produce the “high production-value content” necessary to make their efforts worthwhile. Now, over a decade later, millions of Internet “users” have produced the overwhelming majority of cyberspace. So who exactly are the “users” here, and who are the “producers”? Murdoch can deem free content as “Philistine,” and he can rail against pirates, plagiarists and aggregators — all of which he characterizes as “content kleptomaniacs” — but such a speech needs to be delivered in front of a mirror.
Corporations like News Corp are the users. We are the producers.
The NY Times reports on China’s new surveillance policy requiring citizens to log into news sites with their “real identities” before posting comments. After pointing out that the comments posted to these news sites were already heavily censored and traceable via a commenter’s IP address, the article notes the fallibility of this new layer of surveillance:
The new step is not foolproof, the editors acknowledged. It was possible for a reporter to register successfully on several major sites under falsified names and ID and cellphone numbers.
So, this new layer of surveillance doesn’t really give the state much new information, and it’s at least as fallible as existing forms of digital surveillance. While this surveillance practice, and others, will evolve and become more sophisticated – allowing access to more kinds of (formerly) personal information – people will also evolve and become more sophisticated in their efforts to ensure a comfortable level of privacy. Questioning the efficacy of such a policy, in order to rationalize or irrationalize its application, seems limited. It’s a powerful line of inquiry, particularly for short term tactical gain such as getting Verizon Wireless to stop censoring texts from NARAL, or convincing China to scale back its implementation of the Green Dam Youth Escort. In both cases, however, their was no omission of wrong doing and their was no agreement that they won’t do it again. The only admission was that, within a specific context, a specific surveillance practice was considered to be an ineffective means of ensuring security. In short, questions of efficacy challenge whether a specific surveillance practice does what it claims to do, not how a specific surveillance practice restructures our environment and shapes our daily behaviors (for better or worse).
A better question would ask how this “new layer of surveillance” restructures everyday life – how does this layer shape the built environment and our behaviors within it? What are the costs, benefits, pleasures, and perils associated with this new layer of surveillance?
Whether or not signing into a web site with a “true identity” will compromise public discourse by making individuals more susceptible to retribution, it certainly does introduce a new practice that a person must perform before participting in a public discussion. That sort of embodied practice, even when subverted, shapes our experiences and influences our behavior. Acknowledging upfront that surveillance always works allows us to get to the more important questions of how it works.
I hear (and read) many people reference the fallibility of the latest and greatest corporate/government surveillance practice — by which they mean “surveillance practice X” doesn’t actually do what “group X” claims it’s supposed to do. This often feeds the illusion that because “it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do” it’s somehow benign and ineffectual — that it doesn’t work. Yet every time a new surveillance policy is implemented it works, in a multitude of ways, on our environment and it encourages a broad range of behavior. Attention to how surveillance works in (and on) everyday life gets us away from short-term questions of efficacy and closer to important long-term issues of social (in)justice, equality, and well being.