Law in the Internet Society

How Mickey Mouse Spied: the Growth of the Subscription Era

-- By YanisAliouche - 20 Nov 2023

In my classes at Columbia Law School, one professor noted “you guys don’t own your music anymore. You stream, but you don’t own the copy. Isn’t that weird?”. Two weeks later, Professor Moglen made the same remark, in a much more somber tone. The transition from physical to digital media led by the rise of streaming platforms has altered our intimate connection with art and media, opening it up for advertisers to see.

This essay aims to show how the growth of streaming platforms may give us the sense of loss of ownership over the culture we wish to engage in. Although streaming has grown prevalent, knowledge of alternative software empowers us to reclaim our role as architects of our cultural identity.

"My, what big eyes you have!"

“All the better to see you with”.

Opting for subscriptions to stream services instead of buying or renting a copy elsewhere seems like a given. The service isn’t expensive, and these platforms offer a somewhat expansive catalogue. Why engage in these services? The answer every student seems to have when Professor Moglen asks such a question is "it's convenient”.

Services make it so easy too. Subscribing is designed to keep prospective customers’ attention. Some companies ‘generously’ offer discounts on these services – Verizon, for example, promised to offer a free year of Disney Plus for some of its customers. You’re ushered into subscribing because it seems absurd not to.

“If you’re not paying for the product; you are the product”. If the price is low, it’s that you’re giving something else away. By hitting the subscribe button, you sign a consent form to let Mickey into your home to spy on everything you do.

What’s he after? Your privacy. That’s what’s valuable to these companies.

These streaming companies aren’t even trying to hide it anymore, as they’ve all started upping their prices for ad-free subscriptions and are now starting to introduce ads on their websites, personalized based on your interests. Hulu tells its advertisers that it can help them target consumers based on age, sex, location and “interests and real-world actions – both on and off Hulu. Netflix claims that it only offers extremely limited targeting abilities (based on geographic location, or most popular shows), but it is reported and evident that this will change over time as advertising becomes a more important part of Netflix’ business model .

Mickey has set the trap, and you’ve let him in with open arms.

Who's responsible? How the streaming platforms got our attention

No one took this digitalization shift seriously. Companies refused to take the threat seriously. Blockbuster closed because it resisted adapting to the changing market conditions. When it was offered to buy Netflix, Blockbuster “laughed (Netflix) out of their office”. Borders, the second largest bookstore chain, killed itself by refusing to engage in the digitalization of the industry. The road was open, and streaming platforms like Netflix cruised on it.

The hook for these streaming platforms is showing you things that they know you like – you’ve shown them what you like by taking part in their services. Disney+ uses that to make lackluster Star Wars spinoff shows and countless ugly remakes of movies because they know you’ll watch. Paramount has announced its intent to halt production of original animated movies in favor of remakes – it doesn’t matter how bad they are, they know viewers will be seated. These platforms use the IPs you know and love and wave in front of you like car keys – it’s the cheese in the trap.

‘Content’ has transformed with this rise of streaming platforms. Prequels and spinoffs have evolved into series formats. For instance, Cobra Kai, a spinoff show of the Karate Kid movie has spanned over 5 seasons. Marvel Studios has shifted much of its production to TV shows – which allows longevity of their stories to keep viewers hooked – only available on Disney+. As a Disney+ ad states: “the story doesn’t have to end (…) the stories continue, only on Disney+”.

Taking Back Control - A Call for Autonomy

Creators and consumers may feel they have lost control over the culture they want to participate in, this control seemingly now in the hands of streaming services. Despite the promise of a digital library of movies and TV shows, streaming platforms have the power to alter or remove content on their platforms as they please : Warner Bros Discovery removed content from their platform as part of a tax write-off tied to its merger. Disney+ has removed its original shows such as Willow and the Mysterious Benedict Society” due to the series not preforming enough.

As Professor Moglen often emphasized – “No one’s ever told you there was another way!”. In the face of the giants that are streaming platforms, there exists alternatives. Buy physical copies, support local cinemas… But more than this, we can take back control over our ‘digital selves’. By becoming familiar with software, it takes little to build your own digital library, that no one can access but yourself and those who you choose to let in. It is possible to take back control – a powerful assertion of autonomy in the digital era.


Webs Webs

r3 - 31 Jan 2024 - 18:31:30 - YanisAliouche
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