Over the years we have gotten very used to a very ‘Free Internet’. Free as in, don’t pay for what you use and don’t pay for what you say! Free Content and Freedom of Content are perhaps the main pillars of the Web 2.0 world! Slowly, but surely, these are being threatened by various vested interests.
Unfortunately we have gotten too used to not paying for things. Thanks to piracy, most of us don’t even need to anymore. Music, news, movies and software from all parts of the world find their way into our hard drives. While as a consumer I’m thrilled with this state of affairs, as a business I would not be. Money that should have been going into somebody’s pocket is simply vanishing. Look at this way, every time we go to a torrent website and download a movie, the only cost incurred is that of data transfer (negated with an unlimited data plan). Contrast this with a situation where a person actually goes for the same movie to a theatre/multiplex. Apart from the movie tickets, the other cost components involved here could include transport (to and fro), parking charges, eatables and the government imposed tax you would invariably pay on one or all of these. In downloading a movie other dependant businesses have lost out on valuable revenue. This is of course, over and above the distributors and production houses that lose collections that they rightfully deserve. If we feel that we should be paid to do our jobs, why deprive others? You could argue that we are saving the money. But if everyone stops spending, no one will earn!
Another interesting paradox is that of news/books. In the case of music, movies and software you can lose revenue but no one else can take credit for your work. You can still use your reputation to find another way to make money. A journalist or writer doesn’t quite have the same protection. There is no law against paraphrasing. Months/years of effort and research can come to naught in no time because of perfectly legal reproduction. No money, no fame. Despite anything that Rupert Murdoch tries, people are unlikely to pay for news online. If they don’t pay for news, where do the publishing houses to make money? One might argue that traditionally they have always made their money from advertising rather than subscription. However, there is a world of difference between the revenue generated (for a publication) online and in print. If most people are reading their news for free online. Who is buying the papers? As circulation drops, so will the in print advertising revenues. If they don’t generate revenue, how will they pay the journalists and bear the cost of the research that eventually brings us the news? What will the ‘paraphrasers’ paraphrase? Where will we get our news?
An exchange between author Ken Auletta and Google co-founder Sergey Brin paints the picture perfectly. While being quizzed about Google’s ambitious Google Books project Sergey advises Auletta to print his book online for free since, according to him, nobody really buys books anymore. In his reply Auletta asks him that, if he did publish it online for free, who would pay his salary, who would foot his bills during his research, who would edit, market and publicise his book etc. Good point Mr.Auletta. For those interested, Sergey could not convincingly answer these questions.
In today’s world 10 years is a century, and it has been just over a century that things have been this way. People were in the habit of buying everything till the early 90’s but that was when things weren’t free. The only way that we will start paying again is if the free option ceases to exist – a task very hard to achieve without stepping onto the toes of the ‘Freedom of Content’.
At this rate we could be headed towards a world where quality content makers will be staring at bankruptcy and content will see a bankruptcy of quality!
But if you think that the ‘Content Makers’ are just going to roll over to die. You’re wrong! Aggregators beware. You will be criticized – Rupert Murdoch blasting Google News for giving free access to Wall Street Journal Content. Conspired against – Major publications coming together and investing in Automated Content Access Protocol. Sued – Viacom slapping a 1Billion USD lawsuit on Google’s 5 year old adopted child, Youtube. Just like Metallica successfully sued Napster back in the early naughties. Blocked – Hulu blocking off Boxee.
Oh, I almost forgot, they will also get the government to initiate legislation against you – The Digital Economy bill in the UK had created a huge furore back in November 2009. Under the bill ISPs and other private network monitoring services will be able to spy on everything you do on the internet. File sharing can earn you huge penalties and criminal proceedings. You can read more about the bill here. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the FCC’s ambitious ‘Net Neutrality’ plan received a major setback when an appeals court ruled against them in favour of Comcast stating that the commission does not have the right to enforce it on the ISPs. Comcast had been accused of selectively restricting speeds for users who used P2P networks. Read here. Such an aggressive approach is probably not the right way because they risk alienating the very people they are trying to convert into paying customers. The right move and pricing can do a world of good as in the case of Apple iTunes, which convinced Labels to finally distribute Individual Songs apart from Full Albums.And of course – The App store. While many argue that it is a closed system which will one day lose out to a more open competitor (maybe..maybe not) and too subjected the whims and fancies of ‘His Steveness’ (here i agree). With over 200,000 applications and 4 billion downloads. It is still going strong. You could argue that Apple is not necessarily a ‘Content Creator’ but the idea is to show that people will pay if you devise the right model.
Not to forget the lesson Lonely Planet learned during the eyjafjallajokull episode. Free apps during the crisis and a huge cut in prices in the immediate aftermath saw their numbers soar in the weeks that followed.
Jim Griffin, an advisor to Warner Music Group, is working on a concept to monetize digital music.
Freedom of Content
Freedom of speech and expression translates into Freedom of Content online. Governments all around the world have been able to maintain a certain bit of control over traditional media. Some more than others. Internet Censorship is a different ball-game, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
Internet censorship or Content ‘Curation’..call it what you will..is a catch 22 situation for Content Aggregators. On the one hand, they’re obliged to allow users to post anything as long as it does not violate their ‘Terms and Conditions’ (how many of us actually read these?) they also have to comply with the laws of the land(well sort of)..or face the consequences.
When Pakistan, recently, asked Facebook to remove a certain group, the social networking giant responded saying that they could not do anything as it did not violate their T&C. What happened? Blocked! Youtube and Twitter followed.
Delving further into the past, March 2010, a judge in Italy handed a suspended sentence to 3 Google Execs because YouTube hosted a video of a boy with Down’s Syndrome being bullied. While, the video was removed after it was reported, this was not enough for Judge Oscar Magi.
We all know what happened to the guy who said bomb on twitter! Bloggers face the heat too. Vikram Buddhi, an anti-Bush (who isn’t anti Bush?) blogger found out the hard way that America is not as free as it claims to be. Tweeters @bfbarbie and @CasaBlancaPA could find themselves in trouble for..hold your breath..criticizing a politician on a blog!!The horror! – pardon the sarcasm!..The man in question – Tom Corbett, present Attorney General of the state of Pennsylvania and also a candidate for the post of Governor.
As recently as late April, Google unveiled a new Tool that showed on a map, the number of requests for data and content removal made by various countries between July and December 2009. While Google vs China made all the waves – there are plenty of examples of Google imposed censorship in other countries. Some are listed here.
The FTC’s seeming desperation to find a way to block the Google-Admob deal. Which it has now thankfully approved, after almost 7 months.
Ok! so much for Government Censorship/Intrusion. What about some good old fashioned private arm twisting? Enter –who else? – Apple. Furious about the ‘leak’ of the new iphone. It is widely believed that Apple was behind the police raid at Gizmodo editor Jason Chen’s house. Of course this has not been proved. But what were they doing raiding his house in the first place?!Whatever happened to the protection of a journalist’s source?(this is a constitutional provision in the US) Well, it did not apply because he is a ‘blogger’. In this case, the difference does not apply!. And what is with the seemingly whimsical app approval process. I understand blocking racy-pornographic content. That is their choice. But what about iSealClub? There are far more gory applications/games in the app store? Yes, their store, their choice. But how about a little transparency?
Hulu’s deciding to block Boxee and Android. Apple decides that Flash doesn’t cut it, changes it’s Terms overnight and forces developers to work in native languages, hours before CS5 was released. Apple again, deciding that they do not want to share data with competing Ad networks now that they have iAds. These are just some examples of the hegemony of private players wielding power.
All this being said, The Internet cannot simply run wild, it is perhaps the best example of a free market. As John Maynard Keynes argued, free markets need regulation in order to work. The question is – Who decides?