Are those rules ultimately good for journalism, or for citizens’ and journalists’ right to free speech, and therefore the future of democracy more broadly? News organizations should use their relationships and influence with Facebook to push for changes in how Facebook handles its identity policies, as well as its privacy policies and settings that may be putting the most vulnerable types of journalists at risk around the world.
Self interest has also led major American companies that own some of the country’s biggest and most influential news organizations to support legislation and government policy that is ultimately harmful to independent journalism, free expression, and hence democracy. Disney (which owns ABC), The CBS Corporation, Comcast-NBCUniversal, News Corp, and Time Warner (which owns CNN and other news properties) were all strong supporters and advocates of the Stop Online Piracy Act, better known as SOPA.
The bill was on the verge of passing in January, until a wave of nationwide activism killed it. According to the website Media Matters, in the fourth quarter of 2011 these companies plus the National Cable & Telecommunications Association spent millions of dollars on 28 different lobbying firms to lobby Congress on SOPA and Protect IP.
SOPA would have compelled not only social media platforms, but any kind of website that allows its audience to post comments or upload other content, to monitor and censor their users lest some posting or image violates somebody’s copyright—as alleged solely by that copyright-holder. Failure to do so would result in the website being blacklisted and expose its owners to lawsuits and even criminal prosecution. SOPA and the Senate’s sister bill, the Protect IP Act, would have empowered the US Attorney General to order the blockage of allegedly infringing websites—based anywhere on earth.
The drafters of SOPA and Protect IP did not set out to constrain online dissent and activism, independent investigative journalism, or opposition media. Their goal was to protect intellectual property; specifically to stop IP infringement carried out or facilitated by overseas websites—which is obviously a huge concern to the media companies that own movie studios and music labels as well as news organizations.
Small online news organizations and independent journalists around the world also hope to earn a living from the sale of their own intellectual property. Most would agree that some intellectual property law and enforcement mechanisms are necessary. But if one is not part of a major big brand American or European media company, the threats posed by SOPA vastly outweighed the potential upside.
This is in no small part because the legal and technical solutions proposed in these bills are—at a practical and technical level—very similar to mechanisms used by authoritarian regimes in forcing the private sector to censor and monitor Internet users, which of course include news organizations and investigative journalists seeking to expose corporate and government malfeasance.
It is disturbing indeed that major US media companies not only supported but lobbied aggressively for the passage of a law that was strongly opposed by free speech, human rights, and civil liberties organizations including Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, Reporters Without Borders, Article 19, Amnesty International, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Then there is the issue of net neutrality. The debate over net neutrality is about whether Internet service providers—broadband or wireless—should be allowed to discriminate between different sources of content and different types of services that you might want to access.
The Internet’s empowering nature has been based largely on the fact that any citizen or aspiring journalist can potentially create media and reach global audiences just by sending a tweet or publishing a blog.
On a “neutral” Internet, it doesn’t matter what platform you use—your video, blog post, or podcast is equally accessible to anybody anywhere (as long as a government isn’t trying to censor it).
On a non-neutral Internet, your service provider could offer a “tiered” access package in which access to certain services belonging to major brand names (Amazon, Netflix, YouTube, and Facebook, for example) would be cheaper than access to the general Internet or to lesser known applications and platforms. Brand-name companies could pay the ISP for the privilege of gaining preferential access to users at lower or no cost. Or an ISP could demand money from popular services in exchange for smooth and fast delivery. Or it could deny access to certain services entirely.
If Internet Service Providers fail to adhere to net neutrality principles, the bulk of Internet users will be driven by lower prices, faster speeds, and easier access to the larger, well-financed, commercially operated platforms for everything, including their news consumption. Scrappy startups and nonprofit public interest journalism projects that build and operate their own websites from scratch are at a distinct disadvantage in such a world.