In 2005 a major media company with an international presence handed information on the activities of its journalists to an autocratic police state. A few of these journalists were subsequently arrested, tortured, and imprisoned.
One journalist was Shi Tao. The police state is China. And the media company is Yahoo.
Imagine this had been the New York Times?
Judith Miller, a New York Times journalist, went to jail in 2005 rather than reveal her source in the Valerie Plame affair. Here a major media company supported its journalist’s right to protect her source.
It is telling that Internet media companies, which spend so much time complaining that George W Bush is undermining freedom and democracy, is doing its own bit to undermine freedom and democracy. Yahoo hands over journalists and sources. Google censors information that offends governments. Cisco sells specialised equipment that allows police states to monitor the net activities of their citizens.
This is far removed from the “Don’t be evil” proclamation in Google’s founding constitution. The new media web companies don’t just know evil, they’re actively supporting it.
At the same time these companies are proclaiming the death of old media.
Against this chaotic backdrop the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) is holding its annual congress in Cape Town in June. Their focus is on the future of media and numerous presentations will focus on all aspects of the potential and responsibility of the news media.
Gavin O’Reilly, Group Chief Operating Officer of Independent News & Media and President of WAN, is concerned. Not about the future of newspapers; here he is bullish, “Paid newspaper circulation figures grew by 1.9% in 2006. If you include free newspapers, it grew by 4.3%. Newspapers and magazines – the print media – continue to flourish with a combined 42.3% share of the US$ 425 billion global advertising market.”
The newspaper industry appears financially secure; it was Rupert Murdoch who bought MySapce, not the other way round.
What he is concerned about is the gradual undermining of accountability and responsibility.
Laurence Lessig and the Creative Commons movement have done a great deal to campaign for the end of copyright and a “free culture” in which information travels about like water. He, and many in the open-source movement, have forgotten the duty that comes with exclusive rights; the responsibility to accept the consequences.
Social networked blogs and websites depend on a perpetual flow of new content to keep their audiences entertained and the adverts rolling. Most are incapable of producing such high-quality journalism themselves; so they pirate content. And the mother lode of content providers is, of course, print media. The result is that good (and bad) articles circulate the globe, and both media companies and journalists lose out from reduced revenue and brand recognition.
Ill-advised use can also get everyone into trouble. Google “scrapes” news content from all over the world to populate its news aggregation service. The first concern expressed by unwilling content providers is that the content isn’t paid for. The second is that retractions and corrections do not automatically follow and can result in litigation, as the Independent has discovered.
“We had a story about a paedophile in Ireland,” says O’Reilly. “We carried the story on our website and followed the case. Ultimately the case was overturned, the defendant was exonerated through some technical legal manoeuvring and we printed a retraction and clarification. Right afterwards, the guy sued us because he alleged that the content was still on our website as was represented through Google News. We had removed it but Google News still had a cached copy on their servers.”
“The ACAP (Automated Content Access Protocol) – an initiative that is being spearheaded by the World Association of Newspapers – is designed to automate this process and create a new standard of what is allowed and what procedures the search engines must follow when carrying others’ content. The copyright must remain with either the journalist or the media company. In either case, we reasonably need a degree of control as to how these search engines unilaterally reuse our content. We don’t necessarily want to stop the process but we do want to know where the story is going and how it will appear,” says O’Reilly.
Google enjoys the fruits of other’s labour, but none of the responsibility. They claim that they cannot be held accountable for information carried over their network any more than telephone companies are held accountable for the conversations their customers have.
It’s a spurious comparison. Telephone companies don’t record your conversations to replay as aggregated entertainment for others. If they did you would be suitably outraged and demand compensation.
The long boom and the relative tranquillity of the last decades has given companies a false sense of security.
A comparison to the anti-Apartheid era may offer some insight. Polaroid, an American company, supplied the South African Apartheid government with the instant film used in identity documents for the infamous passes that all black South Africans had to carry. Anti-Apartheid campaigners singled out Polaroid for protest and consumer-action. Polaroid divested.
Did it help to end apartheid? Probably not. Did it salvage the reputations and moral probity of a few? Definitely.
The modern web 2.0 companies permanently claim to be inventing a new future; one filled with common values, common decency and respect for human rights.
All we’re seeing so far is a pursuit of freedom from responsibility. How much like children.