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January 13 2012


Why Unions Should Not Support SOPA

A version of this post first appeared on the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.

I was supposed to speak on a panel about SOPA recently with the Northeast chapters of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. It was to serve as an educational discussion for local members, but at the national level, both unions have already officially endorsed SOPA. I spent the weekend preparing remarks, but the panel has been postponed, or possibly canceled, on account of AFTRA and SAG failing to provide representatives to discuss the bill. I can only hope this is an indication that they're reconsidering their public support of one of the least American bills to gain serious traction in Congress, as a number of other companies have done in the face of public backlash.


The thing is, unions should never have supported this bill to begin with. At their best, organized labor is one of the most surefire ways to create a more equal, sustainable instance of capitalism.

They are the people who brought us the weekend and ended domestic child labor, a more recent phenomenon than we might like to admit. In recent times, the middle class has been under siege for years by politicians erasing taxes on the rich while simultaneously cutting benefits for the poor. Unions have the power to make things more fair, and as a result, they're under constant attack.

But at their worst, unions can behave as reactionary organizations that respond purely to the financial interest of their members, or even just their employers' commercial interests, at the expense of the general good of society. It appears that disruptive technology we know as the Internet is putting them in this position. National unions' stances on net neutrality, and now SOPA, have created a fault line between progressives who cherish free speech and unions focused on short-term paychecks rather than long-term investments in democratic communications. The Occupy movement has worked together with organized labor, for example, but wouldn't support this train-wreck of a proposal for government censorship (see the comments on the AFL-CIO's blog post mentioning SOPA as but one example).

costs outweigh benefits

Granting the government the power to create arbitrary blacklists and extralegal censorship will cost society at an order of magnitude more than union members stand to benefit. SOPA would break the Internet and set up a censorship regime that circumvents existing legal channels to serve one industry's financial desires. Bastardizing the technical infrastructure of the Internet and forcing payment system providers and search engines to cut off service to an organization without a trial is extralegal, and a misuse of these channels. One thing that's been somewhat lost in the uproar over SOPA is that legal channels are already in place to enforce anti-piracy law. As the MIT Center for Civic Media's Ethan Zuckerman pointed out to me, U.S. law already permits seizure of domestic domain names that are used for piracy, and 150 domains were seized in November alone. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act is already U.S. law, and entertainment companies have spoken to its effectiveness.

The Writers Guild of America West has realized some of the implications of SOPA, and although the group is still concerned about piracy, has since come out against the bill in meetings with members of Congress:

They discussed concerns with the bill's implications for competition and an open Internet. Although the WGAW strongly supports combating piracy, the competition, First Amendment, and due process concerns the bill creates must be addressed.

But other, larger, unions remain behind the legislation. I can't be the only person who was surprised to see several top unions, including the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations), SAG, and AFTRA, on the list of organizations supporting SOPA. I'm not sure how SOPA or PIPA would help the actual members of these unions, other than further enrich their employers' CEOs. But the AFL-CIO stands up for it.

I sympathize with the members of these unions, because it's plausible that online piracy is hurting their livelihoods. But a Congressional Research Services report found that the absolute number of jobs in the entertainment industry has actually increased since 1995, and disputes some of the other numbers the entertainment companies and unions are using in their letter to Congress.

It's also possible that many of these jobs are going away because their employers have based their businesses on the sale of physical goods, and haven't done a great or timely job of adjusting to obvious consumer shifts in consumption of content. Their very industries, represented by the trade groups these unions have aligned themselves with, such as the MPAA and the RIAA, have relied for years on reselling "Star Wars" and Beatles albums to the same customers every time the physical format changes. Digital content has brought about the era of the hit single and unlimited streaming, both of which break from the "you must buy this entire album" business model. This is a natural market shift that has nothing to do with piracy. I think it's important to consider that the disruptive technology these trade groups are railing against isn't just file-sharing. They've failed to adapt to simpler, legal shifts in their customers' preferences. (For more on this point, see "Why the Movie Industry Can't Innovate and the Result is SOPA," recommended by my friend Ted Fickes).

Even with regards to piracy, the director of business development at Valve, which sells expensive, pirate-able computer games as convenient digital downloads, said it best: "Pirates are underserved customers.When you think about it that way, you think, 'Oh my gosh, I can do some interesting things and make some interesting money off of it.'" Rather than partner with entertainment trade groups to stifle innovation at an unprecedented scale, creative unions should be working with web startups to enrich the emerging creative-as-producer business models.

how sopa hurts free speech

Besides the financial arguments around piracy and business models, SOPA could hurt unions' ability to organize and negotiate in other, more profound ways. To quote Matt Browner Hamlin, a senior fellow at Citizen Engagement Lab and former deputy director of New Media at the SEIU:

The Internet is a medium of communication and organizing that is evolving in ways we can't predict. It is a democratic medium where you don't have to be a massive corporation to have your voice heard. We should promote the ability of workers to engage in this transformative medium and empower them to find ways to use it to help themselves on the job. SOPA would fundamentally change how the Internet works and thus disempower workers from creating and sharing ideas, from organizing for their rights, and from having a counter-balance in the fight against the boss.

Another friend and SEIU veteran, Joaquin Guerra, points to echoes of this same debate from 2007, when the Communications Workers of America stood in the way of discussion on net neutrality. It was another recent example of a union standing on the wrong side of free speech to benefit their employers, and I guess, by trickle-down economics, themselves:

The topic was net neutrality, the idea that the Internet should not be controlled by telephone and cable companies. It was nowhere to be seen at the conference. The reason, according to a conference organizer, is that "the unions" have a problem with net neutrality.

"The unions" in this case is basically one union, the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Like it or not, CWA is the key to whether the Internet will continue to be open, or whether the telephone and cable companies will turn it into an instrument under their control. The prospects are not encouraging.

To put it more strongly, given the influence the union wields with Democratic legislators in Congress and in state houses, the prospects are downright discouraging. Democrats who traditionally take progressive positions on issues are also Democrats who don't want to cross organized labor. When there is a conflict, labor wins. And if labor is allied with the company, it's no contest. CWA and, to a lesser extent, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), could free Democrats to vote for a free and open Internet. But in a demonstration of the Stockholm syndrome, they won't.

I do sympathize, because disruptive technologies are truly disruptive. They can eliminate entire categories of employment virtually overnight. As my brothers and I emailed about what to get each other for Christmas this year, it struck us that we no longer needed to spend much on entertainment gifts. We get most of our music from Spotify, our video from Hulu and Netflix, and all of our book requests were followed by, "Used is fine. Get it for a couple of bucks on Amazon." My brother joked, "How anyone makes money in this country in 10 years is beyond me, but I suppose we can all buy handmade jewelry and chocolates from one another."

It's not clear where the next gravy train is. If I knew the answer, I'd go start that company. Plenty of people are starting these companies. But an important thing to keep in mind is that you can't un-invent technology. John Philip Sousa's railing against the gramophone and the entire concept of a recorded music industry didn't prevent those technologies from defining the 20th century. But, importantly, it also didn't eliminate the allure or the market for live music.

The answer to disruptive technology is not to employ the United States government to enact SOPA. Rather than help their companies collect collateral damage on younger companies that have made the Internet a prosperous, profitable, and relatively open creative space, unions should look seriously at alternatives to SOPA in fighting online piracy. I doubt that regulation is as viable a solution as creating compelling legal businesses around the globe, but if a law must be passed, the OPEN Act might be a better place to start. You can read some pros and cons for this approach over at TechDirt.

SOPA is good for one group, and one group only: members of Congress raising cash from the entertainment and now, by necessity, tech industries.

Members of the unions still supporting SOPA (the AFL-CIO, SAG, and AFTRA) should make it an internal issue, immediately, to persuade their leadership to take their name off this bill.

Image courtesy of Flickr user yoshiffles.

January 06 2012


This Week in Review: Lessons from Murdoch on Twitter, and paywalls’ role in 2011-12

Murdoch, Twitter, and identity: News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch had a pretty horrible 2011, but he ended it with a curious decision, joining Twitter on New Year’s Eve. The account was quickly verified and introduced as real by Twitter chairman Jack Dorsey, dousing some of the skepticism about its legitimacy. His Twitter stream so far has consisted of a strange mix of News Corp. promotion and seemingly unfiltered personal opinions: He voiced his support for presidential candidate Rick Santorum (a former paid analyst for News Corp.’s Fox News) and ripped former Fox News host Glenn Beck.

But the biggest development in Murdoch’s Twitter immersion was about his wife, Wendi Deng, who appeared to join Twitter a day after he did and was also quickly verified as legitimate by Twitter. (The account even urged Murdoch to delete a tweet, which he did.) As it turned out, though, the account was not actually Deng, but a fake run by a British man. He said Twitter verified the account without contacting him.

This, understandably, raised a few questions about the reliability of identity online: If we couldn’t trust Twitter to tell us who on its service was who they said they were, the issue of online identity was about to become even more thorny. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram chastised Twitter for its lack of transparency about the process, and The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple urged Twitter to get out of the verification business altogether: “The notion of a central authority — the Twitterburo, so to speak — sitting in judgment of authentic identities grinds against the identity of Twitter to begin with.” (Twitter has begun phasing out verification, limiting it to a case-by-case basis.)

Eric Deggans of the Tampa Bay Times argued that the whole episode proved that regardless of what Twitter chooses to do, “the Internet is always the ultimate verification system for much of what appears on it.” Kara Swisher of All Things Digital unearthed the problem in this particular case that led to the faulty verification: A punctuation mixup in communication with Deng’s assistant.

Columbia’s Emily Bell drew a valuable lesson from the Rupert-joins-Twitter episode: As they wade into the social web, news organizations, she argued, need to do some serious thinking about how much control they’re giving up to third-party groups who may not have journalism among their primary interests. Elsewhere in Twitter, NPR Twitter savant Andy Carvin and NYU prof Clay Shirky spent an hour on WBUR’s On Point discussing Twitter’s impact on the world.

Trend-spotting for 2011 and 2012: I caught the front end of year-in-review season in my last review before the holidays, after the Lab’s deluge of 2012 predictions. But 2011 reviews and 2012 previews kept rolling in over the past two weeks, giving us a pretty thoroughly drawn picture of the year that was and the year to come. We’ll start with 2011.

Nielsen released its list of the most-visited sites and most-used devices of the year, with familiar names — Google, Facebook, Apple, YouTube — at the top. And Pew tallied the most-talked-about subjects on social media: Osama bin Laden on Facebook and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak on Twitter topped the lists, and Pew noted that many of the top topics were oriented around specific people and led by the traditional media.

The Next Web’s Anna Heim and Mashable’s Meghan Peters reviewed the year in digital media trends, touching on social sharing, personal branding, paywalls, and longform sharing, among other ideas. At PBS MediaShift, Jeff Hermes and Andy Sellars authored one of the most interesting and informative year-end media reviews, looking at an eventful year in media law. As media analyst Alan Mutter pointed out, though, 2011 wasn’t so great for newspapers: Their shares dropped 27 percent on the year.

One of the flashpoints in this discussion of 2011 was the role of paywalls in the development of news last year: Mashable’s Peters called it “the year the paywall worked,” and J-Source’s Belinda Alzner said the initial signs of success for paywalls are great news for the financial future of serious journalism. Mathew Ingram of GigaOM pushed back against those assertions, arguing that paywalls are only working in specific situations, and media prof Clay Shirky reflected on the ways paywalls are leading news orgs to focus on their most dedicated users, which may not necessarily be a bad thing. “The most promising experiment in user support means forgoing mass in favor of passion; this may be the year where we see how papers figure out how to reward the people most committed to their long-term survival,” he wrote.

Which leads us to 2012, and sets of media/tech predictions from the Guardian’s Dan Gillmor, j-prof Alfred Hermida, Mediaite’s Rachel Sklar, Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman, and Sulia’s Joshua Young. Sklar and Sonderman both asserted that news is going to move the needle online (especially on Facebook, according to Sonderman), and while Hermida said social media is going to start to just become part of the background, he argued that that’s a good thing — we’re going to start to find the really interesting uses for it, as Gillmor also said. J-prof Adam Glenn also chimed in at PBS MediaShift with his review of six trends in journalism education, including journo-programming and increased involvement in community news.

SOPA’s generation gap: The debate over Internet censorship and SOPA will continue unabated into the new year, and we’re continuing to see groups standing up for and against the bill, with the Online News Association and dozens of major Internet companies voicing their opposition. One web company who notoriously came out in favor of the bill, GoDaddy, faced the wrath of the rest of the web, with some 37,000 domains being pulled in two days. The web hosting company quickly pulled its support for SOPA, though it isn’t opposing the bill, either.

New York Times media critic David Carr also made the case against the bill, noting that it’s gaining support because many members of Congress are on the other side of a cultural/generational divide from those on the web. He quoted Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler: “It’s people who grew up on the Web versus people who still don’t use it. In Washington, they simply don’t see the way that the Web has completely reconfigured society across classes, education and race. The Internet isn’t real to them yet.”

Forbes’ Paul Tassi wrote about the fact that many major traditional media companies have slyly promoted some forms of piracy over the past decade, and GigaOM’s Derrick Harris highlighted an idea to have those companies put some of their own money into piracy enforcement.

Tough times for the Times: It’s been a rough couple of weeks for The New York Times: Hundreds of staffers signed an open letter to Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. expressing their frustration over various compensation and benefits issues. The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone reported that the staffers’ union had also considered storming Sulzberger’s office or walking out, and Politico’s Dylan Byers noted that the signers covered a broad swath of the Times’ newsroom, cutting across generational lines.

The Atlantic’s Adam Clark Estes gave some of the details behind the union’s concerns about the inequity of the paper’s buyouts. But media consultant Terry Heaton didn’t have much sympathy: He said the union’s pleas represented an outmoded faith in the collective, and that Times staffers need to take more of an everyone-for-themselves approach.

The Times also announced it would sell its 16 regional newspapers for $143 million to Halifax Media Group, a deal that had been rumored for a week or two, and told Jim Romenesko it would drop most of its podcasts this year. To make matters worse, the paper mistakenly sent an email to more than 8 million followers telling them their print subscriptions had been canceled.

Reading roundup: Here’s what else you might have missed over the holidays:

— A few thoughtful postscripts in the debate over PolitiFact and fact-checking operations: Slate’s Dave Weigel and Forbes’ John McQuaid dissected PolitiFact’s defense, and Poynter’s Craig Silverman offered some ideas for improving fact-checking from a recent roundtable. And Greg Marx of the Columbia Journalism Review argued that fact-checkers are over-reaching beyond the bounds of the bold language they use.

— A couple of good pieces on tech and the culture of dissent from Wired: A Sean Captain feature on the efforts to meet the social information needs of the Occupy movement, and the second part of Quinn Norton’s series going inside Anonymous.

— For Wikipedia watchers, a good look at where the site is now and how it’s trying to survive and thrive from The American Prospect.

— Finally, a deep thought about journalism for this weekend: Researcher Nick Diakopoulos’ post reconceiving journalism in terms of information science.

Crystal ball photo by Melanie Cook used under a Creative Commons license.

September 29 2010


BBC unions prepare staff for strike action

BBC staff unions have posted a series of questions and answers for staff in preparation for potential strikes over pension proposals, which could start next week if an agreement cannot be reached.

Last week union members voted in rejection of new proposals put forward by the BBC earlier this month and the union said it will now “press ahead” with its plans, while maintaining negotiations.

The NUJ and BECTU have published a Q&A for members about the strikes. In their responses they say that, “in the absence of a significant new offer from the BBC”, strike action will commence at 00.01am on 5 October and end at 23.59pm on 6 October, which will coincide with the Conservative Party conference.

A final decision on strike action is expected to be announced on Friday.

This week it was also announced that the NUJ’s general secretary Jeremy Dear will be speaking at a Coalition of Resistance protest against government spending cuts outside Downing Street on 20 October, another date earmarked for strike action at the BBC.Similar Posts:

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