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April 20 2012

17:42

Journalism Inside®

I wonder whether we should be teaching journalists to embed themselves and their abilities into the world rather than always making the world come to them. Thinking out loud…

The other day, when Amazon peeved me by suddenly trying to sell me software — who has bought a box of software in years? — it occurred to me: After software left store shelves, demand for the programmers who make it has only grown. So why, as newspapers, magazines, and books leave shelves, is there not more demand for the journalists who make them?

Companies are clamoring to hire more programmers and investors are dying to back what they do. Everybody wants more code inside their endeavors. So imagine an economy in which companies and investors want journalism inside: “We need to get us some journalists!”

It’s not quite as insane as it sounds if we rethink what a journalist does. Journalists and programmers aren’t really so different. In the the research on innovation and news we commissioned at the Tow-Knight Center, Nick Diakopoulos notes their similarity: “One of journalism’s primary raisons d’être is in gathering, producing, and disseminating information and knowledge…. What is perhaps most interesting about these processes is that they can, in theory, all be executed either by people, or by computers.” Nick’s point is not that technology would replace journalists but instead that technology provides new opportunities for news.

Programmers and journalists create similar value — or they could. Each makes sense of information. Technology brings order to the flow of information; journalists ask the questions that aren’t answered in that flow. Each brings new abilities to people — functionality (in software terms) or empowerment (in journalistic terms). But programmers don’t produce products so much as they produce ability: your ability to get what you want. Shouldn’t journalism act like that? Shouldn’t we teach them to?

Imagine a perpendicular universe in which an organization or community says: “We need someone to help make sense of this information, who can add context to it or find and fill in missing pieces or present it in a way that will make sense to people — as a narrative or a visualization. We need to get us a journalist.”

It so happens that our entrepreneurial journalism students just had the treat of hearing from Shane Snow of the startup Contently. He is offering a service to companies — brands in particular — that are indeed asking the question above. Brands, haven’t you heard, are becoming media. Instead of placing their ads around others’ content, brands are putting content around their ads. Contently lets them search its 4,000 writers’ profiles and use its reputation system to find the right writer or community manager or video maker or infographic whiz. Contently also offers to manage these tasks.

Isn’t that just PR, working for a brand? No, Shane says, because Contently provides writers to make content an audience will value instead of a message a company wants to get out. Messaging is marketing. This is more analogous to the soap opera model — or the show Northern Exposure: P&G underwrote those shows so it would have a place to put its ads. Now more brands are doing that on the web. YouTube, too, is underwriting the creation of independent content — without owning it — just so more people will have more good stuff to watch there. Advertising still subsidizes content but the chicken and the egg are trading places.

But funny you should mention PR. Its role, too, changes. In What Would Google Do? I spoke with Rishad Tobaccowalla, strategist for Publicis, and we thought of a reverse world in which public relations exists to represent the public to the company, not the other way around (a professionalization of Doc Searls’ Vendor Relationship Management). We now see companies looking for that skill. They call it community management but that’s a misnomer unless you mean it in Doc’s context: that the community manages the company (the company doesn’t manage the community).

As I wrote this, I got a lucky visit from Kevin Marks, now of Salesforce, ex of Apple, Google, and Technorati, who teaches me much about technology. He posed the programmer-v-journalist comparison another way, arguing that each models the world, one with algorithms, one with narrative (and each faces the problem of “imperfect mapping”). He called it the tension between the storyteller and the builder.

That’s a very telling contrast for journalism schools. Many of our students want to build things, which we encourage, but we constantly struggle with balancing technology and tools vs. journalism and its skills in the time we have to teach. There’s also a tension regarding what they build: journalists pride themselves on being storytellers but is that all they should build? They might build visualizations of data — which, yes tells a story, sans narrative — but shouldn’t they also build tools that enable the public to dig into its own information (see: Texas Tribune) and platforms that let them share their information?

These new opportunities have led some to believe we should turn out the mythical journalist-coder, the hacking hack who does it all. I am not so sure that unicorn lives in nature. Yes there are some; it’s possible they exist. But I don’t think that journalists must become coders to take advantage of new technologies. They need to know how to work with the coders, how to spec and modify and use these tools. They need to understand and exploit the opportunities.

They also need a different culture. Rather than seeing ourselves as the creators (and owners) of products (content), shouldn’t journalists — like coders — see themselves as the providers of services, as the builders of platforms, as the agents of empowerment for others? That’s how developers see themselves. They build things, yes, but no longer shrink-wrapped. They build tools people use; they add value to information they produce. Journalists, in addition, have seen themselves speaking for the little guy but as Kevin Marks put it to me, that role becomes subsumed by the network when the little guys can speak for themselves. Still, there’s value in using new tools to help them do that. Is that a new journalism or is that a new PR? Gulp! Depends on who gets there first.

So where do journalists fit in in the world? And what do we teach them?

Well, we still start by teaching what my dean calls the eternal verities: accuracy, fairness, completeness. Implicit in that is a sense of service and given the rise of the network we need to consider what our fundamental service is.

We teach them to gather, make sense of, present, and most importantly supplement information through reporting — but there are now so many new ways to do that, so now we don’t just teach reporting but also data skills.

We teach them to build — yes, stories, but now in more forms, and also more than stories: tools and platforms.

We also teach them to build businesses. We teach them sustainability.

We teach them to go out into their communities, but now I say we need to make them see that they are a part of and not separate from those communities, no longer envisioning ourselves at the center, gathering everyone’s attention, but instead at the edge, serving their needs, providing communities elegant organization. This is a difficult skill to teach. Since starting what we call interactive journalism (not “new media”) at CUNY, I’ve struggled with finding ways for the students to have a public with whom to interact. One way we’ve done it is The Local with The New York Times, but we need more ways.

If we consider the programmer worldview, then we need to teach journalists how to fit in to the world differently, to spread their skills and value (and values) out into other enterprises, institutions, and communities rather than making the world come to us for journalism: Need some reporting, some editing, some sense-making, some empowerment, some organization, some storytelling, some media making…? “We need to get us some journalism!”

Now, of course, the journalists will worry that when working in the employ of others, they lose the independence that their journalistic institutions afforded them (so long as those companies were rich monopolies). That is well worth the worry. But again, consider the programmer who brings her skills to an enterprise but still must decide whether the enterprise is worthy of them. Consider, too, how programmers work in open-source to spread their value — and grow it — among anyone who sees fit to use it. They don’t own coding the way we thought we owned the news. They spread it.

Shouldn’t we spread journalism out beyond our walls as not only a skill set but also a worldview, getting more people to see and create a demand for the value of accurate and reliable information (“trust is the new black,” says Craig Newmark), organized information, context, and so on? Shouldn’t we want to embed journalism the way programmers embed code? Then we wouldn’t just teach journalists to go to work for news organizations — or, for that matter, start them — but also to organize news everywhere? Whether and how to do that, I’m just beginning to wonder….

/thinkingoutloud

February 10 2012

03:48

The temporary, pop-up corporation

A stat I heard repeated all over Davos: that the average lifespan of a Fortune 500 company is now 15 years, according to Cisco’s John Chambers. Trying to confirm that figure, I found others saying the number is less than 50.

Whatever. It’s far from forever.

So what if corporations more and more become short-lived enterprises? What would that mean?

Consider that Kodak just announced that 124 years after it started, it will stop making cameras. GM and Chrysler a mess of banks would have died, if they weren’t too big to fail. Borders and and Circuit City and Blockbuster and giant retailers are dead. Whole industries are dying.

Now consider that Kickstarter just passed a key milestone: two projects garnering more than $1 million in … what do we call it? … contributions? purchases? investments? We don’t have the right name yet for orders received before a company starts and a product is made. We don’t have a name for a company founded on its customers’ capital.

I have been arguing that vertical industries will be replaced by horizontal ecosystems made up of three layers: (1) platforms that enable (2) entrepreneurial ventures to be created at low cost and risk and (3) networks (e.g., ad networks) that, when needed, bring these ventures together to reach the critical mass that firms used to provide.

Of course, enterprises today can start with no need to build factories (use someone else’s) or distribution (plenty of that, for now) or technology (use the cloud) or marketing (let your customers do it for you) or design (let your customers help) or retail outlets (they’re dying anyway) or capital (see above). We know that this new architecture of the economy means enterprises can be launched with less investment, risk, and effort.

But consider that it also means that enterprises can disappear without leaving much of a hole. The guy who made the Kickstarter-backed iPod Nano watchband, who raised almost $1 million and guaranteed himself success (so long as he priced the product right), can keep making it until it isn’t hot anymore and then just do something else. No need to worry about long-term return on investment; no need to fret over feeding a factory-full of workers. Bermuda, here he comes.

But that’s not how our economy is built. How often do you hear that the wise person invests for the long term? Well, what’s long-term now? A generation? A decade? A few months?

If this is the case, then the platforms that make this temporary economy possible — Amazon and its web services, eBay and its retail chain, FedEx and its distribution chain, Google and Facebook and their marketing power — will be the best long-term plays. That’s why VCs keep saying they want to invest in platforms. But there’s only so many of those.

Of course, the problem for VCs in the last decade has been that start-ups just don’t need them as much as they used to. That will be ever more the case. Now the rest of us will know how the VCs feel. Where can you put our money if you’re an investment fund or a pension fund or a plain investor? Where will equity grow? Will it? I wish to hell I knew.

I’ve also been arguing lately that technology is leading to efficiency over growth. That, too, means that it will be difficult to find new jobs and equity growth.

Oh, there will be wealth. Witness Facebook’s IPO. But consider that Facebook serves soon a billion people with a staff the size of a metro newspaper company and they will end up with much greater wealth in fewer hands. Technology will not solve the economic imbalance of the 1 percent but make it worse, unless you’re one of those 3,000 employees of the platform or you manage to start a new company — likely a temporary, pop-up company — on top of it.

January 02 2012

16:06

So much for the penny press

The New York Times raised its daily price to $2.50 today. I thought back to the penny press at the turn of the last century and wondered what such a paper would cost today, inflation adjusted. Answer: a quarter.

Screen shot 2012-01-02 at 11.09.10 AM

So, in inflation-adjusted current pennies, The New York Times today costs 10 times more than a newspaper in 1890. Granted, Today’s Times is better than a product of the penny press. But is it worth 10x? Should it cost 10x?

In the meantime, labor rates have risen (a Timesman today lives better than a Timesman then) but production technology has become far more automated and efficient (no more typesetters, proofreaders, compositors, engravers, stereographers, mailrooms, or “rubber rooms” filled with unneeded pressmen). And the advertising value of newspapers has increased exponentially.

On the one hand, there’s less competition today. The New York Times is essentially a national newspaper monopoly (the Wall Street Journal and USA Today are different beasts). That should enable it to raise its price to such a premium. On the other hand, what’s really at work, of course, is that there’s much more competition today: the entire web. That would drive the paper to lower its price.

Instead, today it raises its price — by a whopping 25% over its old daily price of $2. That’s because it is trying to support an outmoded economic model. The myth of legacy media — rich while it lasted — was that every reader saw every ad so the paper charged every advertiser for every reader. That’s how scale paid off. Those are the economics that led to the rise of the penny press.

Online, that myth has been punctured: (a) every reader does not see every ad, and (b) advertisers pay only for the ads readers see (or in Google click on), and (c) there’s abundant competition. That’s what confounds legacy media folks: “If I get more audience and have more effective advertising, why am I not being paid more?” Because you’re operating by media laws that are now outmoded. You’re still operating under an industrial economy built on scarcity. That’s what makes you think you still have pricing power.

You need to find opportunity in entirely new models, in the new scale, in abundance. Google finds value in scale by taking on risk for the advertiser (who pays only for clicks) and by increasing relevance by putting ads everywhere. Facebook finds value in relationships and data about them and it doesn’t sell content but does use content as a tool to generate more data about users and their interests.

In their day — a century ago — newspapers found new ways to exploit scale. Today, net companies exploit scale in new ways. Google, Facebook, and Twitter are the penny press of today. Only they cost even less.

BTW, thanks to the very good Times Machine, we can see that The Times started life at a penny, which rose to four cents and then back down to a penny by 1900 — because it wanted scale.

May 18 2011

13:21

Why do we need a postal service?

Do we need a Post Office? That is the question I will be asking when I keynote and moderate PostalVision 2020, a one-day conference in Washington on June 15 along with Google’s Vint Cerf and other players and experts from the industry.

The answer to this question is probably yes. But I don’t think it should be answered until we reconsider the delivery industry from the ground up, seeing what is no longer needed and what the market can provide in the digital age.

My involvement with this project came through a side door. John Callan, who organized it, is a respected consultant and veteran in the industry. He read What Would Google Do? and, I’m glad to say, thought it had lessons for his industry. He came to the book because, at another conference, he heard the head of the UK’s Royal Mail ask the question, “What would Google do if it ran the Post Office?” Ruth Goldway, head of the US Postal Regulatory Commission, answered that she thought Google would give everyone a computer and printer (eliminating the cost of delivering now-obsolete correspondence). Callan thought Goldway had read my book. She hadn’t. But he did. So he contacted me; I was intrigued with the speculation, and we’ve been collaborating since.

Since then, I’ve worked with Callan and company on a project for the USPS Office of the Inspector General. And now I’m honored to be part of the event Callan has called in Washington to ask the big strategic questions about the fate of the Postal Service and the industry.

Who should attend? Obviously people in the delivery industry. So should its customers: retailers that ship directly to customers, Amazon, banks, lawyers, and media companies—including advertising agencies and their clients. Companies that are disrupting the industry should be there. That includes, for example, Facebook, which believes it is redefining and replacing the idea of mail; Google; email companies; new transactional and billing companies; telecoms whose bandwidth replaces trucks; even online media and digital agencies (who should understand what would happen if media and advertising become too expensive to deliver by mail). Entrepreneurs who find opportunity in the disruption of the industry should be there, of course. This includes companies that are rethinking such activities as paying bills and merchandising. Plus, of course, government officials and regulators will need to be there.

I intend to set the tone by proposing some obvious but difficult trends (like these for media), starting with this rule: If it can be digital, it will be digital. Anything that can be delivered by bits will have to be because that costs essentially nothing. That will continue to kill first-class mail and as it declines, its subsidy to the rest of the system disappears, which will raise both prices for customers and losses for the USPS. That trend is already accelerating. The USPS’ loss reached $2.6 billion in the first quarter alone, up from $1.9 billion the year before and volume of first-class mail fell by more than 7%. The USPS says it will be insolvent by September.

This is urgent.

Just as I tell newspapers they need to imagine turning off their presses so they discover where their real value lies, I am saying that the delivery industry has to imagine building itself over because it can and must. Or entrepreneurs will. There are countless new efficiencies to take advantage of. We can’t afford not to.

Do we still need the Postal Service’s guarantee of universal delivery? Likely yes, but it’s worth asking whether that obligation to get deliveries to remote outposts should be carried out with offices and trucks owned by the government or through subsidies to private industry. Does the Postal Service have a role to play in and identity (could it be a guarantor?) and security (our mail is protected from warrantless spying but our email so far is not). What are the principles and rights to privacy and security that should govern even private and electronic delivery? What impact does all this have on broadband policy?

There is much to discuss. This is a starting point, to identify the issues, needs, and opportunities and start the discussion around them. I’ve found the challenge fascinating, more than I’d ever have guessed.

If you are remotely connected with delivering messages, transactions, and goods; if you are the disrupted or the disruptor; if you see the opportunity to invest in the arena, I hope you’ll come.

February 24 2011

12:56

The distraction trope

In the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland is the latest curmudgeon to recycle Nick Carr’s distraction trope, microwave it, and serve it with gravy. The argument is that Twitter—though possibly a wonderful thing for Egyptian revolutionaries (we can argue that trope another day)—is distracting us Westerners from our important work of deep reading and deep thinking and something simply must be done. We have a crisis of concentration brought on by a crisis of distraction, he tells us. Some I respect react and call this matter urgent.

Bollocks, as my Guardian friends would say.

I want you to think back with me now—I’m hypnotizing you, which should alleviate the stress of distraction, at least momentarily—to the moment in 1994 or soon thereafter when you discovered the World Wide Web and a new activity: browsing. Didn’t we all, every one of us, waste hours—days, even—aimlessly, purposelessly clicking links from one site to the next, not knowing where we would go and then not knowing where our hours went? Oh my God, we would never get anything done again, we fretted. We are all too distracted. We were hypnotized.

I know from market research I did that back then that it was not long before browsing diminished and died as our main behavior online. We became directed in our searches. We came to web looking for something, got it, and moved on. That’s partly because the tools improved: Yahoo gave us a directory; brands took on the role of serving expected content; Google gave us search. But this change in behavior came mainly because we got over the newness of browsing and had other, more important things to do and we learned how to prioritize our time again.

It is ever thus. Think back to the early days of TV and cable: My God, with so much to watch, will be ever get anything done? The exact same argument can be made—indeed, one wishes it were made—about books: With so many of them unread, how can we possibly ever do anything else? But, of course, we do.

Twitter addiction shall pass. Have faith—faith in your fellow man and woman. I was busy doing other things yesterday, important things, and so I pretty much did not tweet. I survived without it. So, I’m depressed to say, did all of you without me. I just wrote in my book that Twitter indeed created a distraction to writing the book, as I was tempted by the siren call of the conversation that never ends. But it also helped with my writing that I always had ready researchers and editors, friends willing to help when I got stuck or needed inspiration.

Twitter is a tool to manage and we learn how to do that, once the new-car smell wears off. That’s exactly what has happened with blogging. And here is the moment the curmudgeons triumphally declare the triumphalists wrong and blogging—which, remember, was also going to destroy us—dead or dying. What killed blogging? Twitter. Ah, the circle of life, the great mandala.

But I can guarantee that the distraction trope will be pulled out of the refrigerator and reheated again and again as the curmudgeons raise alarms about the destructive power of the next shiny thing. I’m loving reading a long-awaited new book by the esteemed Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein. In Divine Art, Infernal Madness, she takes us back to exact same arguments over the printing press among the “triumphalists” and the “catastrophists.” That is perhaps better title for our curmudgeons. She quotes Erasmus arguing that

the benefits of printing were almost eclipsed by complaints about increased output: swarms of new books were glutting the market and once venerated authors were being neglected. “To what corner of the world do they not fly, these swarms of new books?… the very multitude of them is hurting scholarship, because it creates a glut, and even in good things satiety is most harmful.” The minds of men “flighty and curious of anything new” are lured “away from the study of old authors.”

And isn’t really their fear, the old authors, that they are being replaced? Control in culture is shifting.

What are our catastrophists really saying when they argue that Twitter is ruining us and Western (at least) civilization? They are branding us all sheeple. Ah, but you might say: Jarvis, aren’t you and your triumphalists making similarly overbroad statements when you say that these tools unlock new wonders in us? Perhaps. But there is a fundamental difference in our claims.

We triumphalists—I don’t think I am one but, what the hell, I’ll don the uniform—argue that these tools unlock some potential in us, help us do what we want to do and better. The catastrophists are saying that we can be easily led astray to do stupid things and become stupid. One is an argument of enablement. One is an argument of enslavement. Which reveals more respect for humanity? That is the real dividing line. I start with faith in my fellow man and woman. The catastrophists start with little or none.

Ah, but some will say, these tools are neutral. They can be used by bad actors as well. That’s certainly true. but bad actors are usually already bad. The tools don’t make them bad.

Take the Great Distractor of the age: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. The real debate over him in The Social Network and among privacy regulators and between catastrophists and triumphalists is about his motives. I write in Public Parts:

If, as the movie paints him, he acts out of his own cynical goals—getting attention, getting laid, getting rich—then manipulating us to reveal ourselves smells of exploitation. But if instead he has a higher aim—to help us share and connect and to make the world more open—then it’s easier to respect him, as Jake [my son] and I do. . . .

There is the inherent optimism that fuels the likes of him: that with the right tools and power in the right hands, the world will keep getting better. “On balance, making the world more open is good,” Zuckerberg says. “Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.” The optimist has to believe in his fellow man, in empowering him more than protecting against him. . . .

He believes he is creating the tools that help people to do what they naturally want to do but couldn’t do before. In his view, he’s not changing human nature. He’s enabling it.

I talked with Ev Williams at Twitter and he says similar things. He’s not trying to distract us to death. (That would be Evil Ev.) He’s trying to help us connect with each other and information, instantly, relevantly. (That is Good Ev.) It’s up to us how we use the tool well—indeed, we the community of users are the ones who helped invent the power of @ and # and $ and RT to refine the gift Ev et al gave us. I heard a similar mission from Dennis Crowley at Foursquare: helping us make serendipitous connections we otherwise wouldn’t.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the one who started this whole mess in the beginning (damn you, Sir!) is trying to push all the toolmakers to the next level, to better understand the science of what they are doing and to unlock the data layer of our world. Wonderful possibilities await—if you believe that the person next to you isn’t a distractable dolt but instead someone with unmet potential. There’s the real argument, my friends. And you are my friends, for remember that I’m the one who respects you.

December 10 2010

16:54

A classic of curmudgeonliness

Newsweek issues what is either a genius act of subtle satire or a classic case of curmudgeonliness and resistance to technology and change in this slideshow alleging to list the things the internet has killed. It’s hardly worth a response except, in its slide-show simplicity, it neatly encapsulates the hymnbook of the old church. Among its obits:

* Facts: Insert the tired, old argument that “anyone can disseminate false information…. These days, politicians, pundits, lobbyists, and bloggers make so many false statements that more than two dozen fact-checking operations have been launched by news organizations or universities this year in an effort to stem the torrent of untruth.” Well, that sounds nice in alliteration. But it’s bullshit. I argue that we as a connected society have, instead, come to expect facts in an instant. Back in the day, when we didn’t know something, we might vow to look it up, but since that entailed driving to a library, the odds what we would fulfill that pledge were nil. Today, when you want to know something, don’t you reflexively reach for the Internets and the Google? When someone spouts bullshit, don’t you often ask them to show you the link, and if they don’t, you discredit them? This worldview comes from the old journalists’ belief that they were the priests anointed as caretakers of facts. I’d say we’re doing much better with facts on our own.

* Reference books: Only a few slides later, Newsweek acknowledges that we don’t really need those tomes. “Encyclopedias fall behind less-reliable [ah, they couldn't resist] but more timely competitors, like Wikipedia. And why carry around a dictionary, thesaurus, or atlas when you have Internet access and Google?” Why, indeed?

* Privacy: Oh, crap. I’d argue about this one but it would take time away from writing a book on the topic. I talked to new-Newsweek head Tina Brown about the topic here.

* Letter writing: OK, so what? We now have more means to stay in touch with more people in less time than at any time in history. I’m involved in projects on the future of the Post Office and I say there that the first-class letter will be extinct. And now we have blogs, which are often letters to the world. How wonderful.

* Concentration: I forgot what I was going to say about that.

* The yearbook: That’s just flat-out wrong. My kids have yearbooks. School papers are dying but that’s not because of the internet; it’s because of budget cuts.

* The peep show: That would be more accurate if they said the porno store. Drive around Florida or Vegas or even Manhattan and you’ll find plenty of strip clubs. Just this morning, driving in, I saw a new billboard for Hustler’s. (A true case of mis-targeted advertising, I’ll add.)

They also declared toast video stores, vacations, the 9-to-5 job, Poloroids and other film, the telephone, book, the CD, and….

* Civility: Oh, fuck me.

Now, Newsweek, let me suggest what the internet really kills:

* Government secrecy.

* Opaque markets.

* Central control.

* Power elites.

* Borders.

* Inefficiency.

* Ignorance.

* Newsweek.

November 02 2010

01:43

Why I was rooting for Cablevision: Free Glee!

Glee - wide-eyed 04Believe it or not, I was disappointed that Cablevision settled with Fox, albeit grumpily, agreeing to pay retransmission fees for its signals. It’s not surprising: Baseball fans wanted their World Series; the FCC was hankering to intervene (without the power); and one really couldn’t imagine going without Fox forever … not yet. So Cablevision caved. Some say this is a sign that content remains king. I think it’s more a case of Humpty-Dumpty teetering.

Hanging tough against Fox was a first shot in the next media battle: the unraveling of TV, the separation of programs from channels. Old TV channels have become an unnecessary layer of curation. It’s the shows we want, not the networks. Networks are and always have been meaningless brands. They provided services: distribution, promotion, monetization. But as in the rest of media — as with news publishers, book publishers, radio stations, book stores — those functions can now be taken away from the middlemen and done more efficiently elsewhere.

The problem for Cablevision is that the unraveling has to start at home. It can’t unbundle Glee and the World Series from Fox until it unbundles its huge packages of utterly unwanted channels that cable companies force us to pay for though we never watch them. Physician, heal theyself.

Of course, this unbundling will be painful for cable companies. They gather huge revenue selling those bundles to trapped customers who have no choice but to pay for Fuse if they want Food. It won’t be an easy transition. But once choice arrives, we will demand our freedom from bundles.

And this unbundling will be quite painful — no, fatal — for many channels. No longer subsidized by being sold with Food, Fuse may die.

Producers and stars will also have trouble with the transition, though I think they’ll come out on top as kings of content. Today, they have to share revenue with many middlemen but at least they know how to use the system. It gets better for them, though, when they’re on the other side of the transition, building direct relationships with fans and not sharing revenue with so many middlemen. They’ll be more efficient — maybe smaller but also possibly more profitable with more control and less risk. Yes, it’ll be harder to make blockbusters but that’s getting harder anyway as we get more fragmentation (read: choice) in media.

What it will take to start disrupting the old ways is for a big star or show to start distributing directly on the internet. The big star’s name will be sufficient for promotion. Distribution is all but free. There needs to be a structure for monetization: selling ads (Google? AOL?) and/or subscriptions (Amazon?). Note well that in entertainment, as opposed to commodity news, I believe pay walls will work. I’ll pay for Weeds — I already have — but won’t pay for one of 5,000 news stories about the same event I could watch myself.

So when we reach the promised land of entertainment, we get rid of the old, value-extracting middlemen: channels. Will cable companies still be around? Possibly. Probably. Someone will still deliver the internet to our devices. That could still be the cable company if it learns how to start adding value rather than just extracting it with bundles and fees and restrictions on what we can do with our own TVs.

There is a new role for curators who add value by helping us find the entertainment we’d like. Enter Google TV among many hopefuls for that job. There are new opportunities to make money with data and targeting (cue privacy fretting). We the audience are no longer hostage to Burbank programmers’ schedules, so entertainment can change form; it can be something other than 22 or 44 minutes long; it can be collaborative, with someone becoming a host and a platform for our creativity (YouTube?); it can last for as many episodes as it should rather than as many as The Office is making.

As with so much else in entertainment and technology, the FCC could screw this up. They’re about to try by asking for more authority to intervene in the retransmission negotiations like those Cablevision and Fox just went through. The problem with that — as with so much else the FCC and FTC and meddling in — is that they would act to support the incubments and prevent disruption, against our own interests, propping up old pricing structures and old models of entertainment and keeping disruptive newcomers out. No, FCC, no!

Here’s the problem with retransmission: Fox succeeded in making Cablevision pay for the right to transmit its broadcast signals. Except those broadcast signals — transmitted on airwaves we, the people, own and gave to channels — are supposed to be free. But now Cablevision is paying for them and those fees will be passed onto its customers. So we, the viewers, will pay for Fox twice — once as an opportunity cost in revenue lost to taxpayers by not selling TV spectrum and now twice in new fees to Cablevision and other cable companies. Thank you very much, FCC and Congress. Way to go. Whom are you serving again?

Once we get socked with more and more fees thanks to retransmission blackmail by channels, I’ll just bet we’ll start protesting to the FCC and it will have reason at last to pressure cable networks to unbundle. Once that’s done, we also need the right to unbundle broadcast channels; I don’t plan to pay for the CW, whatever the hell that is anyway. And once that happens, retranmission becomes as irrelevant as rabbit ears.

Now the next problem is that channels will give up their exclusive rights to programs over their dead bodies. But it has been happening, starting when ABC streamed Desperate Housewives online and as shows show up on Hulu. But now that, too, is getting ugly as Fox tried to block Cablevision users coming to Hulu (until it found it was screwing non-Cablevision viewers, too). And now ABC, CBS, Fox, and Hulu are blocking Google TV, which is insane, for they’re only blocking viewers who want to find their shows. Thus arise all kinds of new (and, for me, unanticipated) network neutrality issues, blocking content based on how you come to the internet or what search vehicle you use. Insane.

Listen, people, TV should be simple. It will be simple, damnit: We want to watch the shows we want to watch whenever and wherever we want to watch them. We’ll watch ads with them or we’ll pay for them. We won’t give a damn whether we watch them on a channel or on a web site or in an app or via Facebook; via a TV or a computer or a phone or a tablet; streaming from the cloud or from our hard drive; found via search or friends’ recommendations on Facebook or Twitter. Channels that stop us from watching them [Fox, are you listening?] are hastening their own deaths. Stars, producers, and studios will, like water, find their way around you as will we, the viewers. You middlemen are doomed. It’s only a matter of time.

So don’t think that Fox won this war. It only won this round. Fox’s parent, News Corp., is turning into the last of the great control freaks of content, building pay walls around its newspapers; blackmailing cable providers — not exactly a sympathetic bunch — into paying retransmission fees for content that is otherwise broadcast free over our airwaves; and pulling links off Google. News Corp. is turning into the uninternet. So fine. we’ll watch how they do as TV and media unravel around them. Can’t wait.

September 06 2010

04:04

Regulating sex and speech

Let me start with a disclosure: I hope to think that Craig Newmark is a friend. He can be as hard for me to read as James Joyce or C++. But I know him as a decent and genuine man who believes that he is bringing a service to millions of people, saving them billions of dollars that used to go to overpriced, monopolistic middlemen. He doesn’t do it to get rich (I’ve driven by his office and home and they ain’t palaces), which is precisely what bedevils those old middlemen; I’ve watched them try to break him and prove he’s greedy, too, and I’ve watched them fail. When I last had coffee with Craig in San Francisco (on the craigslist tab, I should disclose), he talked about the number of free ads craigslist has given people in terms of economic philanthropy, which is also what he said to my students at CUNY two years ago.

These days, Craig and the company he founded are being demonized in courts of political and media power as sex peddlers. The service — which Craig is quick to point out, he does not run; he means it when he says he is its customer-service representative — just took down its adult ads in the U.S., replacing the link with the word “censored.”

The argument has been that craigslist ads are used to serve human sex trafficking. Except craigslist has been openly and consistently helping police in their efforts to arrest traffickers. The adult ads were paid and more trackable than free personals on craigslist or ads in many other places online and in print. Now the trade, whatever its scale, is only more distributed. Gawker has a guide to post-craigslist paid sex and craigslist has pointed out that even eBay has sold party favors of another sort.

So why are government and media going after craigslist? The same reason, I think, that media and government in, for example, Germany are demonizing Google (even as the German people give Google its biggest market share anywhere in the world). They’re going after the disruptors, the biggest disruptors in sight.

Since craigslist and the internet have existed, newspaper classified revenue has fallen by $13 billion a year, leaving that money in the pockets of former advertiser-customers. Since Google and the internet have existed, many more billions have left traditional media as Google offered their former ad customers a better deal.

The New York Times today belittles craigslist’s censorship, calling it a “stunt” and “ploy” and labeling as “screeds” craisglist CEO Jim Buckmaster’s defenses of the service—and of free speech—against attorneys general and against ratings-starved CNN ambushing Craig. Nowhere does The Times disclose its own dead dog in this hunt, its loss of billions in classified revenue (in blogs, we’d be expected to, eh?). But the paper does acknowledge that the law is on craigslist’s side even if its enforcers are not and that this is a matter of free speech, which should put The Times and its journalists on craigslist’s side as well.

But they’re not. I’m not suggesting conspiracy; I rarely do. But I do see old power structures huddling together against the cold breath of technologists bringing change. At the Aspen Ideas Festival last summer, I asked Google’s Eric Schmidt whether we were going through a larger restructuring than a mere crisis. He replied that he wished we were but cautioned that, as I wrote then, too much of our resource, people, government help and attention go to the big, old legacy companies rather than supporting innovation (read: disruption). I would have translated that into the idea that instead of bailing out GM and subsidizing and artificially, temporarily propping up house and car prices, government should invest in bringing broadband to every door. I would have hoped that Schmidt might have agreed. Sadly, even he is now listing to the legacy. Google, the big boy, plays with other big boys.

But craigslist is still the weird kid. At the end of its story, The Times quotes someone saying that “Craigslist is not your typical company in the sense that it doesn’t seem to be exclusively motivated by profit.” What a strange, inscrutable child, it is. It’s easier to attack a company that doesn’t act like a company. And it’s easier to attack free speech and liberty when they — and dollars — are spent on nasty sex.

But this is a fight of old establishment power — business, media, and political — against new and disruptive technologists who are writing new rules. This is also a fight over freedom of speech. Last night, I woke up on the couch to see the end of The People vs. Larry Flynt. In this country, we protect bad speech to protect all speech.

Yes, prostitution is illegal. It long has been — the oldest laws cover the oldest profession — but the authorities have been blinking at ads for *cough* escort services in newspapers of many sorts for many years (here are the Village Voice’s adult ads). I’m headed to Berlin and Amsterdam in a few weeks, where prostitution is legal and regulated. Beyond exploitation of children — which every civilized person on earth abhors; as Mike Masnick says, the real enemy, not discussed in all this, is the trafficker — do we really want and need government regulating sex among free-willed adults? But that’s not the issue here. If it were, those attorneys general and CNN and The Times would be going after all those services Gawker lists and some newspapers, still.

No, the issue is disruption.

August 24 2010

16:49

Transparent inventory & the rebirth/death of retail

The Times reports this morning on smart retailer Nordstrom making its inventory in warehouses and in stores transparent so a buyer who’s dying for a purse can find it nearby (for immediate gratification), or from the warehouse (for convenience), or at the last store that has it (which will ship to her).

The earlier rendition of this was BestBuy or B&N making it possible for customers to find whether an individual store had an individual item via their web sites; that’s not quite as easy as saying, “wherever it is, just get it to me,” but it was an important step in this direction.

The next rendition of this will be, I think, enabling the customer to search across multiple retailers and order. That will give us what Dave Winer tweeted this morning that he wants: “I wish there was an Amazon store in midtown Manhattan, where I could buy anything that is available for same-day delivery. I’d go there now.”

Well, if Amazon did that, it would be gigantic, expensive, capital-intensive, inventory-filled Wal-Marts peppered all across the country; it would be expensive to build and it wold lose the efficiency and profitabliy that Amazon enables.

But the virtual version of what Dave wants is possible with transparent — and open — inventory, enabling customers to ask, “Who has this item nearest me at the best price? Then I’ll go get it or get it delivered to me today.”

Ah, price. There’s the rub, of course. Such a network would make pricing transparent. It pretty much already is. We can search across individual retailers or use the likes of Froogle and get the lowest prices. There lies the downfall of retail’s margins, taking out the ability to arbitrage opacity in pricing. Now add transparent inventory and the ability to get the item at the lowest price now and the value of retail brands sinks as does its profitability — in an already tough-margin business.

I could imagine a new service — from Amazon or an entrepreneur — that says: Tell me what you want, Dave, and I will tell you where you can find it or I’ll get it to you. That’s the new value-add for those who want to touch an item or get it immediately. The other value-add is support and service (see: Best Buy’s Geek Squad). Putting boxes and shelves and waiting for people to buy them while carrying the cost? That no longer adds value; it only increases risk.

Retail is going to get ever-more efficient. Independent bookstores were killed by the more-efficient box stores. Box stores were wounded by Amazon and the internet. Amazon could be injured by a local value-added retail search-and-delivery service. All this is fine for the customer: more choice more quickly at lower prices.

But I think retail could be headed the way of newspapers: into a pool of endless pain. All over America, I see empty retail shells: the former Circuit City, the closed book box, the folded mom-and-pop. I think there’s much more of that to come.

This is what transparency — in price and inventory — can do to a market.

July 14 2010

01:51

No American BBC

I just don’t understand Columbia University’s apparent obsession with handing over portions of the press to government subsidy, giving up on the free market. I haven’t given up on it. Have you?

The latest raised palm comes from Columbia President Lee Bollinger in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal, of all places. This could send BBC-hater Rupert Murdoch to his grave so he can spin there. Bollinger proposes that we start an American BBC by pooling (merging?) the resources of the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, PBS, and NPR.

He repeats the old saw that American media is already government subsidized. Except postal subsidies are meaningless as print and the post office decline. Legal ads should be going to the web for free to save taxpayers money anyway. I wish PBS and NPR did not rely on any government money so it would not be put under government pressure and could operate with true independence. And I do think broadcast spectrum should be sold so it is not seen as public airwaves (broadcast itself becoming meaningless) and so it is not subject to government censorship (see today’s victory for the First Amendment).

Bollinger argues that we’re getting the BBC thanks to the British taxpayer. Well, yes, the BBC has funded its world service for years to extend its empire; their choice. But I pay a fee on Sirius to hear them. And its TV channels in the U.S. are ad-supported, as is its web site. As BBC budgets are attacked by the Tories, I’d say it’s more likely our marketing economy will subsidize their free news — if Murdoch doesn’t stop them.

When Columbia presented its plan to save journalism — which included government subsidy — I had this discussion with Bollinger and he pointed out that I am subsidized by government as a professor at a state university. Touché. But I’d rather raise money to support my work from foundations and companies and revenue-generating activities. “Indeed,” Bollinger writes in the Journal, “the most problematic funding issues in academic research come from alliances with the corporate sector.”

Bollinger then questions the editorial integrity of the American press he wants to save, saying: “To take a very current example, we trust our great newspapers to collect millions of dollars in advertising from BP while reporting without fear or favor on the company’s environmental record only because of a professional culture that insulates revenue from news judgment.” Who has mishandled BP more — the press or the government?

Shockingly, he mentions as models of state-supported media, not just the BBC but also China’s CCTV and Xinhua news and Qatar’s Al Jazeera. In what sane world is the Chinese government’s relationship with news a model. What would Google do?

Bollinger suggests taking down the prohibition on beaming propaganda broadcasters VoA and RFE into the U.S. “This system needs to be revised and its resources consolidated and augmented with those of NPR and PBS to create an American World Service that can compete with the BBC and other global broadcasters,” Bollinger concludes. “The goal would be an American broadcasting system with full journalistic independence that can provide the news we need. Let’s demonstrate great journalism’s essential role in a free and dynamic society.”

I think we can demonstrate and build that independence by teaching tomorrow’s journalists to build strong, sustainable, and independent businesses. We just disagree.

July 12 2010

14:48

The Quark of programming?

I think Google’s App Inventor tool that enables anyone to program an Android app could be profound. But then, I thought Buzz was a big deal, so what the hell do I know?

Is it possible that the App Inventor could do to development what Quark did to publishing and Blogger did to the web: enable anybody to do it?

Dave Winer is skeptical and speaks from experience. He and I just made a bet: “that in two years Google’s Android app developer will not have any effect on the priesthood of programming.” If it does, Dave pays me — and he’d be a happy man if he loses. But I fear he’s right and I’ll end up paying him $20, making us both sad because in my view it’s a good thing when priesthoods get displaced. (Nick Carr, Andrew Keen, et curmudeonly al would disagree.)

As soon as I tweeted about App Inventor, developer curmudgeonliness erupted. @srmccoy said, “I’m afraid the WYSIWYG model is going to create a bunch of lazy devs who never bother to learn the skills of their craft.” That’s what I heard about Quark and design in its time. @fakebaldur said, “Quark was an exp. app for print designers, blogger free for amateurs and App Inventor a hideous monstrosity for geeks.” Straddling the fence, @thunsaker said, “I’m kinda scared of what this will produce. Glad that non-techies will bet a taste of development, though.” Now that’s the attitude.

Will App Inventor yield lots of crappy apps? Of course, it will, just as Quark enabled sinful design and Blogger wasted bits. That is true of all such technologies that lower the barrier to entry to a former domain of priests. That’s precisely what the printing press did. As much as the web breaks down priesthoods, it created new ones. Developers are merely the latest. They say that mortals can’t do what they do. But what if they could? What if they could translate a thought not just into words and design but into action?

I imagine Marc Benioff of Salesforce.com going positively batshit over this, enabling businesses to create apps for, say, their sales teams to manage and share information about and with clients. I imagine small businesses using App Inventor to create apps like Chipotle’s that enable customers to make burrito orders before they arrive. I imagine teachers being able to make exercises and quizzes in apps (forget the electronic textbook; give me the electronic workbook!).

More important, I imagine, as @thunsaker says, someone who never thought she’d develop picking up App Inventor to make the first step and then deciding to learn more using more sophisticated means. That’s how priesthoods really get destroyed. Oh, at first, the priests always lament that people can do crappy versions of what they do. But soon, they, too, start making good versions. And that’s when priests are displaced.

App Inventor is also a brilliant competitive shot at Apple. Steve Jobs would never tolerate this as he won’t tolerate crap. So those companies and small business and teachers I listed above will have to go to the free space of Google’s Android to create. There’s a clear competitive differentiation. Google believes it will win by having more devices running its free OS and more applications running on them.

But this also brings out a key challenge for Google and another key competitive differentiation: quality. There will be — there already is — more crap on Android. So Google has to do two things: invent better means to surface quality (if anybody can do that, they damned well better be able to) and encourage the creation of more quality (I think they need to invest in talent, as YouTube is doing with video creators). That’s what I said on the latest This Week in Google.

On Twitter @charlesarthur invoked Sturgeon’s Law. I’ll invoke another. What App Inventor really does is bring the new law of content creation even to development: In a world of overabundant content creation, value flows to the curator. Before, development talent and resources were scarce. Now, if their product is not scarce and if easy tools make the creation of crap easier, then there’s value in finding and enabling the good stuff. The trick is extracting value from that; that’s the problem journalists are having today.

As my son goes off to college to study computer science, this makes me wonder whether there’s a new opportunity and challenge here. Dave Winer’s right to question whether there will be any impact at all. We’ll see. I have $20 and more riding on this.

June 02 2010

15:14

AT&T’s cynical act

AT&T’s service sucks. Just listen to our most trusted newsman on the topic. But AT&T response to this core business problem is not to improve its service, to invest in better ways to handle more customers.

No, AT&T’s response is to change its pricing to make us use its service less.

That’s cynical. It’s evil.

AT&T got rid of unlimited data (except for grandfathered accounts … else those changed accounts could all cancel without paying AT&T’s just-increased cancellation fee). They paint it as lowering the price but in truth they lowered the value.

The sick and stupid irony of this is that it was AT&T — in the person of Tom Evslin, then head of AT&T WorldNet (remember them? AT&T killed that golden goose, too) — that turned off the ticking clock on the internet when it established flat-rate pricing of $19.95 a month for unlimited use of the internet. That is what exploded use of the internet and enabled us all to browse without worry. That turned the internet into an industry.

And now it’s AT&T that turns the clock back on. Tick. Just as mobile is about to explode with new devices and new uses for us all to be ubiquitously and constantly connected doing all kinds of new things and creating new value along the way, AT&T says it wants nothing to do with that explosion (because it would have to work harder and invest more to do better). So it makes a business strategy out of imprisoning Apple fanboys as long as it can and making them use its service less. Tock.

AT&T also tries to push us off its network both with its pricing and with the promise of wi-fi. Its press release even makes it sound like an AT&T service that we can use unlimited wi-fi in our home! Thank you, AT&T.

Let’s note that AT&T’s action in relation to the iPad is nothing short of bait-and-switch as it was sold as using the magic of unlimited data with plenty of data-rich applications and now the price of that gadget only soars if you actually use it as it was designed: to consume media constantly.

I would hope that Apple is chagrinned about the door to which it has delivered its customers. But Apple sniffed the shark when it picked AT&T, making Apple’s control more important than its customers’ service and value and its partner’s quality and ethic.

Of course, this is all the more painful because AT&T’s competitors also suck. Verizon, which most say has good service, has data caps. T-Mobile, which I’m using on my Nexus One, has unlimited data but its network is about an inch worse than AT&T’s. When I was on Sprint, its service wasn’t great but at least they still have unlimited data. But with Verizon and Sprint, I can’t use their phones when I go abroad.

America’s mobile phone industry sucks! That’s more than a mere consumer kvetch. It is a strategic failing.

Hey FTC, if you really want to serve the future of media, why don’t you figure out how to instill real competition in the mobile industry? Right now, it’s a miserable quadopoly that has us by the balls and squeezes.

Can you hear me now?

: Oh, I meant to add: With GoogleVoice and Skype, I don’t even want your voice minutes, phone companies. All I want is your data. And I don’t even necessarily want data over your stupid caps. I don’t want to worry about it. Selling me a service I have to worry about is bad business.

Can you hear me now?

: Here’s Steve Jobs at D on AT&T. Nothing is said of AT&T’s moves to screw his customers the next day. Did he know about it? When asked what he’s going to do about AT&T, he essentially shrugs:

May 29 2010

16:10

FTC protects journalism’s past

The Federal Trade Commission has been nosing around how to save journalism and in its just-posted “staff discussion draft” on “potential policy recommendations to support the reinvention of journalism,” it makes its bias clear: The FTC defines journalism as what newspapers do and aligns itself with protecting the old power structure of media.

If the FTC truly wanted to reinvent journalism, the agency would instead align itself with journalism’s disruptors. But there’s none of that here. The clearest evidence: the word “blog” is used but once in 35 pages of text and then only parenthetically as an example of buying ads on topical sites (“e.g., a soccer blog…”); otherwise, it’s only a footnote. The only mention of investing in technology — the agent of disruption — comes on the 35th page (suggesting R&D for tools such as “improved electronic note-taking”). There’s not a hint of seeing a new ecosystem of news emerge – the ecosystem we study and support at CUNY — except as the entry of nonprofit entities that, by their existence, give up on the hope the market will sustain news.

If the FTC truly wanted to rethink journalism and its new opportunities and new value in our democracy, it would have written this document from the perspective of the people it is supposed to represent: the citizens, examining how we can benefit from news that is newly opened to the opportunity of collaboration and greater relevance. Instead, the document is written wholly from the perspective of the companies and institutions of the industry.

The document, like good government work, does a superb job of trying very hard to say very little. From its hearings and research, the staff outlines proposals I find frightening, but many of them as politically absurd as they are impossible — e.g., what I’ll dub the iPad tax to put a 5% surcharge on consumer electronics to raise $4 billion for public funding of news — and the document doesn’t endorse them.

Still, it’s the document’s perspective that I find essentially corrupt: one old power structure circling its wagons around another. Change? That’s something to be resisted or thwarted, not embraced and enabled. The FTC’s mission in this administration of change — its justification for holding these hearings and doing this work — is to foster competition. Well, the internet is creating new competition in news for the first time since 1950 and the introduction of TV. But the commission focuses solely on newspapers, apologizing that it ignores broadcast — but not even apologizing for ignoring the new ecosystem of news that blogs and technology represent.

“This document will use the perspective of newspapers to exemplify the issues facing journalism as a whole,” the FTC says. And later: “[N]ewspapers have not yet found a new, sustainable business model, and there is reason for concern that such a business model may not emerge. Therefore, it is not too soon to start considering policiies that might encourage innovations to help support journalism into the future.” That is, to support newspapers’ survival. There’s the problem.

Among the ideas the FTC presents:

* “Additional intellectual property rights to support claims against news aggregators.” The document even takes on the language of Rupert Murdoch and company describing aggregators as “parasitic.” It espouses their perspective, that search engines and aggregators “use” content when, from my perspective, such use promotes and adds value to that content (and we’ll soon see how Murdoch’s properties do without it). The FTC doesn’t broach the concept of the link economy and the value and distribution created by aggregators — not to mention (and they don’t) that created by recommendations from readers via Twitter and Facebook (neither word appears).

The FTC looks at extending copyright and corralling fair use and also outlines the dangers, ending up with no recommendation, thank goodness. It also looks at proposals to extend the “hot news” doctrine of a 1918 court case by the Associated Press but doesn’t begin to grapple with the definition of hot (Tom Glocer of Reuters says his news has its highest value in its first three miliseconds) and it does acknowledge that news organizations “routinely borrow from each other.” Rip ‘n’ read, it’s called.

What disturbs me most in this section is that the FTC frets about “difficult line-drawing being proprietary facts and those in the public domain.” Proprietary facts? Is it starting down a road of trying to enable someone to own a fact the way the patent office lets someone own a method or our DNA? Good God, that’s dangerous.

* Antitrust exemptions. The FTC looks at allowing news organizations to collude to set prices to consumers and with aggregators. Isn’t that the precise opposite of what an agency charged with protecting competition for the benefit of customers should be considering? Shouldn’t the FTC recoil in horror at such sanctioned antitrust to protect incumbents’ price advantages? Not here.

* Government subsidies. After saluting the history of government subsidies for the press — namely, postal discounts, legal notice publication, assorted tax breaks, and funds for public broadcasting — the agency looks at other ideas: a journalism AmeriCorps paying journalists; increased funding for public broadcasting; a national fund for local news suggested in Columbia’s report on journalism; a tax credit for employing journalists; citizen news vouchers (a la campaign checkoff); grants to universities for reporting. It also looks at increasing the present postal subsidy (which would only further bankrupt the dying postal service in the service of dying publications); using Voice of America and Radio Free Europe content (aka propaganda) in the U.S.; and enabling the SBA to help nonprofits.

* Taxes. At least the FTC acknowledges that somebody’d have to pay for all this. In one section, the FTC looks at licensing the news: having ISPs levy a fee on us that the government then dolls out to its selected news purveyors — call that the internet tax. It’snothing but a tax and it would support incumbents surely. In another section, it examines the aforementioned iPad tax; a tax on the broadcast spectrum; a spectrum auction tax; a tax on ISPs and cell phones; and a tax on advertising (brilliant: taking a cut of the last support of news in America).

* New tax status. The document spends much space looking at ways to make journalism a tax-exempt activity and suggests the IRS should change its regulations to enable that. It also looks at changing tax law to enable hybrid corporations (“benefit” and “flexible purpose” corporations that can judge success on serving a mission and not just maximizing profits) as well as L3Cs.

* Finally, the document looks at the one thing that should be in its purview as a government agency: getting government to make its information open and accessible to view and analyze. Well, amen to that.

I’m quoted in the document from my testimony saying that I am “optimistic to a fault about the future of news and journalism. The barrier to entry into media has never been lower…. But what we do need is a level playing field.” And in a footnote: “If you’re talking about surviving, you’re talking about the perspective of the old, legacy players who had a decade and a half to get their act together, and they didn’t The future of journalism is not institutional, we now know, it is entrepreneurial.”

But this document does nothing to enable that entrepreneurial future. If you want to give somebody tax breaks — and I wouldn’t — give them to those who invest in innovation — whether as disruptors from the outside or as visionaries from the inside. I certainly would not change laws to favor incumbents over those innovators. I see no reason to provide tax subsidies to support an activity that is now a hundredfold more efficient than it used to be. Rather than restricting the flow of information by making it proprietary, I’d argue that it is in the interest of democracy to make it yet freer.

The real problem I see here, again, is the alignment of the legacy institutions of media and government. Here, the internet is not the salvation of news, journalism, and democracy. It’s the other side.

The real advice I gave the FTC is not quoted in the document. It’s this: Get off our lawn.

March 27 2010

19:27

A Bill of Rights in Cyberspace

In my Media Guardian column this Monday, I will suggest that we need a Bill of Rights in Cyberspace as a set of amendments to John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Note that I do not suggest the establishment a Constitution of the Internet; I think that would violate the tenets Barlow so eloquently if grandiosely sets forth. We don’t need government in cyberspace; we need freedom.

This Bill of Rights attempts to establish the fundamental freedoms of our internet that must be protected against abridgment by governments, companies, institutions, criminals, subverters, or mobs. I suggest in my column that in its confrontation with China, Google is acting as the ambassador for the internet to the old world under its own (rediscovered) principles. So we would be wise to establish our principles. I ask the column’s readers to come to this post to suggest and discuss articles.

Here are mine:

* * *

A Bill of Rights in Cyberspace

I. We have the right to connect.

This is a preamble and precondition to the American First Amendment: before we can speak, we must be able to connect. Hillary Clinton defines the freedom to connect as “the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other.” It is this principle that also informs discussion of net neutrality.

II. We have the right to speak.

No one may abridge our freedom of speech. We acknowledge the limitations on freedom of speech but they must defined as narrowly as possible, lest we find ourselves operating under a lowest common denominator of offense. Freedom is our default.

III. We have the right to speak in our languages.

The English language’s domination of the internet has faded as more languages and alphabets have joined the net, which is to be celebrated. But Ethan Zuckerman also cautions that in our polyglot internet, we will want to build bridges across languages. We will want to speak in our own languages but also speak with others’.

IV. We have the right to assemble.

In the American Bill of Rights, the right to assemble is listed separately from the right to speak. The internet enables us to organize without organizations and collaborate and that now threatens repressive regimes as much as speech.

V. We have the right to act.

These first articles are a thread: We connect to speak and speak to assemble and assemble to act and that is how we can and will change the world, not just putting forth grievances but creating the means to fix them. That is what threatens the institutions that would stop us.

VI. We have the right to control our data.

You should have access to data about you. And what’s yours is yours. We want the internet to operate on a principle of portability, so your information and creations cannot be held prisoner by a service or government and so you retain control. But keep in mind that when control is given to one, it is taken from another; in those details lurk devils. This principle thus speaks to copyright and its laws, which set the definitions and limits of control or creation. This principle also raises questions about whether the wisdom of the crowd belongs to the crowd.

VII. We have the right to our own identity.

This is not as simple as a name. Our identity online is made up of our names, addresses, speech, creations, actions, connections. Note also that in repressive regimes, maintaining anonymity — hiding one’s identity — is a necessity; thus anonymity, with all its faults and baggage and trolls, must also be protected online to protect the dissenter and the whistleblower. Note finally that these two articles — controlling our data and our identities — make up the right to privacy, which is really a matter of control.

VIII. What is public is a public good.

The internet is public; indeed, it is a public place (rather than a medium). In the rush to protect privacy, we must beware the dangers of restricting the definition of public. What’s public is owned by the public. Making the public private or secret serves the corrupt and tyrannical.

IX. The internet shall be built and operated openly.

The internet must continue to be built and operated to open standards. It must not be taken over or controlled by any company or government. It must not be taxed. It is the internet’s openness that gives it its freedom. It is this freedom that defines the internet.

* * *

More: Bruce Sterling on the state of freedom of information.

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