Law in the Internet Society

Eben, there was one comment that I'm not sure I understood. You said "Our strategy is to drive up their costs by helping people to want to be free." Could expand on this please? Thank you. Lauren

  • Sure. Consider my two original sentences in context: "They [the Chinese Communist Party and other regimes trying to control the net] cannot employ voluntarism to manufacture unfreedom as we can to manufacture freedom, so they are compelled to an eternal drain of resources making enough unfreedom to keep under control the freedom we manufacture for free. Our strategy is to drive up their costs by helping people to want to be free." Because unfreedom has to be paid for out of the regime's resources, and is directly proportional at best to the amount of free conduct going on, increasing peoples' propensity to behave freely drives the costs of control to the breaking point. Increasing peoples' propensity to behave freely requires only stimulating their hunger for free expression and their contempt for those who need to interfere with it.

The Internet, the News Ecosystem and the Rational Ignorant fool.

-- By LaurenKlein - 08 Nov 2009

Section I: The Anecdote

Let’s start with a personal anecdote circa 2004. I was a young journalist working for a local paper in a small, suburban town. It is one of the longest running local newspapers, with a proud reputation for serving its community well. I was there for every endless zoning meeting; I bonded with the curmudgeon police chief and I watched fire fighters serve heroically late into the night.

Then it came. The Internet. (Cue scary music.)

Of course it wasn’t overnight, but it kind of felt that way. And as one of Palfrey’s digital natives, I suppose I was relatively comfortable with and excited about the digital emersion. The editors, middle-aged local die hards, who had lived and worked in this town their whole life, however, only new one way to do things. You brainstorm, make some calls, report, write, file the story. Then wait to see the piece in the morning paper and hope the copy editors didn't insert a typo into the headline.

In the three years since I left the paper in 2006, it has changed ownership three times. It no longer stands alone, but it is part of a conglomerate of Connecticut newspapers. I forget who owns them now. Last I heard it was Hearst.

This concentration of ownership probably killed the paper because instead of local news, subscribers now get more reports about local news in Hartford. But at the time, the staff worried more that the Internet wouldn't let us do our jobs. Instead it was all about citizen journalism. We bemoaned. Seriously? What about balance? How could a retired architect get the facts right about my zoning meetings?

Perhaps it was the atmosphere I was in, but I worried too. Though I intuitively understood that ease of distribution and peer to peer communication could better serve a community’s access to information, the changes implemented to “leverage the Internet” at our paper (i.e. stick what you wrote for the print publication online) didn’t seem to serve that end. I was confused about how the Internet would make for a better news ecosystem. I left journalism.

The story of The Stamford Advocate is ubiquitous. And as Eben pointed out during his class discussions, the news, music, and software industries — industries formed on the premise of content ownership —are reeling because the Internet demands a new flow of information.

“The end point is not that there won’t be news, but that there won’t be ownership,” Eben said in class.

Section II: The News Ecosystem in an Internet Age

Some of the arguments around copyleft and free software can help further refine how digital technology and the Internet impacts the shift occurring in the news industry and how citizens could be able to “consume” news.

There might not be journalism as we understand it today, but there will be information that any citizen can access and comment on and use to affect political and social change. Information is power and understanding technology allows for access and control of information.

The best of the world’s news information won’t come from the top down media. Perhaps curation models that integrate news articles, videos and commentary about one single event from around the world and from even the most marginalized of voices will be presented in one format so a news “consumer” can read and watch multiple accounts of the event without having to do the web search and hit each individual news site. Perhaps the echo chamber will disappear and you will read the New York Times story alongside the Al Jazeera story alongside the Chinese media account and decide they all got it wrong and incomplete. With an increasing amount of data and sources online, news consumers are just as capable as the journalist of finding out the facts. Though perhaps what becomes crucial in world of “too much information” is the judgment of the journalist or the curator to scan through it all. (Again, however, don't we return to a point where others’ judgment is implemented in order to choose from the world’s sources and show readers what is perceived important and relevant?)

Legacy news companies (Fox, CNN, New York Times company, etc.) aren’t comfortable with this change because their revenue comes from ad sales and eyeballs. It’s sort of ironic and sad that news organizations would be so opposed to networked technology that aggregates information from multiple sources, since the news industry has always relied on the news network (AP, Reuters, BBC World Service) and these networks’ contacts of local stringers to gather information; particularly in a global context. Trying to beat the other news services and the demand to produce revenue only hurts their product: information. Perhaps RSS feeds solve some of this problem for a news consumer, but perhaps there can be (or already exists) a more efficient manner with which to read and evaluate the news of the day from multiple sources.

Furthermore, partly as a result of aggregation services such as RSS feeds, the advertising business so tightly connected with the newspaper industry is evolving into something else. As Eben commented on this post, the news business “was buying commodity information and adding advertising, thus making a retail product. With the advent of pull media, however, the advertisers don’t need the commodity. They can go directly to the people who are already interested.” This new business model for ad revenue presents other issues around privacy in the digital age, but this paper will not tackle those problematic business tactics.

Seemingly the exchange of information on the local level will actually be better as it evolves into microjournalism whereby the local city architect, now retired, can in his good judgment pass on information relating to issues of zoning around the neighborhood and those involved and interested will follow his feeds and updates and respond in kind. Ideally the city will put all the relevant information and data online to back up or refute the points presented. Since this architect doesn’t have to bear the costs of running a print operation, he can support his writing without an advertising income. So “journalism” in a way no longer needs advertising (it actually never did) and as news consumers we are probably better off for this change.

Section III: Rational Fools

The information ecosystem in a digital age is messy. It will be less easy to escape behind one narrative of current events. Users, however, must care and take responsibility for seeking and understanding the subtleties of information for themselves. Otherwise we risk becoming one of Dostoevsky’s rational ignorant fools. “Push” media relies on the rational fool. The Internet could allow us to emerge from that fog.

For example, the role out of represents the services of a digital news ecosystem that allows citizens to be engaged and not just informed. This is certainly a dramatic change from the way things have been done. Instead of an average citizen waiting for the news delivery each morning or night — i.e. waiting for a newsman to tell them what to think and how to think — people will be able to think about and look at the facts for themselves.

The information about our governments can flourish in a way it never has before.

Perhaps this is the na´ve perspective. Perhaps in reality, because most people, out of laziness or fear or sheer lack of time, prefer and/or need to rely on other people’s judgment to explain the information and events as black and white, thus allowing the reader to pick a side and have a point of view for the dinner table. The Internet for all it’s liberating potential will just become another tool for manipulating the masses. This is certainly the case in China. There is just enough “authoritarian deliberation” via the Internet in China to allow people to feel free-er, without actually having more freedom.

Other authoritarian regimes have developed equally sophisticated methods for controlling the network, but realize that limiting public debate entirely and isolating their countries in a time of continued globalization is not in their best interests either. For example, see Iran, and Russia. The U.S. and other democracies are frankly not that far behind this trend. What separates the US and stable democracies from these repressive regimes are the institutions in place, such as the court system and the institutionalization of free speech as seen in the first amendment to the Constitution.

Perhaps the Internet is the printing press 2.0 and significant social and political changes will emerge from this technology in even the most repressive regimes, the same way the printing press impacted science and religion in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The value of the Internet then, does come from the paradigm for each individual to be able to think for herself. Perhaps that thinking will still be molded by mainstream media or perhaps it will be shaped by content previously on the margins of society now equally accessible (at least until Comcast and the movie industry own all our content). If, however, the “value of the Internet is having the very wisest people on earth thinking for you,” as Eben commented here earlier, then unless these wise thinkers can help other people act wisely, it would seem the majority of our society is doomed to life as rational fools. Nuanced thinking often doesn't lend itself to mass dissemination.

  • I think this is a finished revision. I don't find myself fully satisfied with the argument, but I believe those are disagreements rather than deficiencies in the essay.


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r7 - 07 Sep 2011 - 00:44:12 - IanSullivan
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