behind the news

Collateral damage: news organizations, free speech, and the Internet

This is the text of this year's Hearst New Media Lecture, given April 19 at the Columbia Journalism School
May 3, 2012

How many more years will need to pass before we can stop calling digitally networked media “new”?

After all, this year’s graduating class of students—and most of their generation—have spent their entire news-consuming and producing lives in a digitally networked environment.

This digitally networked environment has not only transformed how professional journalists do their jobs—or how news organizations package and disseminate news. Journalism has been globalized and democratized as never before. It has gone from something done almost exclusively by professionals to an activity in which any concerned citizen can potentially engage.

Today you are just as likely to learn about events in a remote country from a citizen journalist or freelancer from that country than from a Western foreign correspondent.

One of the most important news photos of 2009—of a young Iranian protestor named Neda as she lay dying on a street in Tehran—was taken by a protestor with a cameraphone. The Arab Spring was initially sparked by citizen reporting of protests that broke out in a small Tunisian town—where no foreign media was present and on which no professional media dared to report—after the self-immolation of a desperate young Tunisian fruit seller in late 2010.

The career path for a young aspiring journalist graduating today is much less clear than it was for me when I graduated from college in 1991. Back then, seasoned journalists 20 years older than myself dispensed clear advice that had not changed much over the course of a generation: work your way up from a local newspaper, or radio station, or TV station, prove yourself and eventually get a job at one of the top papers or broadcasters. Or start out as a stringer or a factchecker for a news magazine and hope they’d hire you as a full time writer or correspondent. Or if you had foreign language skills—as I did with Chinese—get on a plane and find whatever entry-level news assistant job you can in a foreign news bureau belonging to any American news organization that happens to be hiring when you arrive.

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Two decades later, the number of news organizations with foreign bureaus, and full-time jobs with news organizations more generally, have shrunk dramatically. A young aspiring journalist today—and many older ones whose job security has been disrupted by the digital revolution—must be much more entrepreneurial and flexible. We need to be able to develop our own personal brand and reputation through blogs, social media, and other channels. We must be prepared to freelance, launch or join startups, somehow find a way to do the work we love and believe is important, and also pay the rent.

A growing percentage of professional journalists in the United States and around the world are freelancers. According to the International Federation of Journalists, freelancers now make up the majority of paid journalists in some countries.

Meanwhile, the combined growth of both online and freelance journalism has led to a world in which professional journalists—alongside citizen-journalists who may have other professions but who use the Internet and mobile devices to report on events around them—are more vulnerable to arrest and death than ever.

In its annual report, the Committee to Protect Journalists informs us that in 2011, roughly half of the 179 journalists imprisoned around the world were working primarily online. And as the CPJ points out, many of these online journalists are freelancers or work for small, local news outlets. They do not have the resources of large institutions behind them.

What’s more, in 2011, one third of the 46 journalists killed in direct connection with their work around the world were freelance—which according to CPJ is more than twice the proportion that freelancers have constituted over time.

The events of last year underscored how important journalism is to people all around the world: the bearing of witness and the investigative reporting, conducted by professionals or amateur citizens or some mixture of the two, is vital if citizens anywhere are to have any hope of holding governments and companies accountable to the public interest.

Journalism students and journalism schools are for good reasons obsessed with the question of journalism’s uncertain future. Over the past several years since I left CNN and plunged into the experimental world of citizen media, I’ve been to numerous conferences about the future of journalism. The focus of many of the discussions ultimately ends up revolving around how major big-brand newspaper and broadcast companies can adapt their business models to the digital world.

Business models are important to sustain and support the sorts of journalism that are unlikely to be conducted by unpaid hobbyists or concerned citizens with other day-jobs. But in an age where all kinds of journalists—and all news organizations—depend on digital platforms, networks, and devices in order to do their work and reach their audiences, a tension is emerging between the interests of those who work within large, well-resourced media organizations mainly in the West—and most other categories of journalists.

This second group includes freelancers; scrappy experimental startups; independent photographers and filmmakers; specialized news nonprofits; ethnic and minority media; opposition, dissident or exiled media trying to reach audiences in authoritarian countries; and of course citizen journalists.

It is vital to the global public interest—and the future of accountable governance and even democracy around the world—that this second group of journalists not only survive, but have the chance to thrive.

Their work is most vulnerable to attack by powerful government and established economic interests. But independent, freelance, alternative, startup, and citizen journalism depends not simply on the Internet, but on a certain kind of Internet.
In order to succeed and compete—and stand a chance of displacing the old legacy media brands with new innovative news startups—they need an Internet that is open, interconnected, and neutral. Censorship and discrimination—be it by government or by corporations that run the platforms, services, and devices they depend on—is poison to them. In order to evade arrest and even death in some parts of the world, this category of journalists are most in need of an Internet on which investigative journalists and citizen bloggers can stand a chance of evading surveillance, and even mask their identities or work under pseudonyms when necessary.

The largest and most powerful media organizations have tremendous power to shape the future of the Internet through their relationships not only with lawmakers and regulators in the world’s largest media, Internet and telecommunications markets. They also have growing influence over the way in which social media platforms interact with news media and with audiences, and how the world’s most popular mobile devices shape people’s understanding of—and conversations about—world events.

However this power is being used in some troubling ways: In pursuit of commercial self-interest, many news organizations have been supporting business practices, technologies, policies, and legislation that will diminish the Internet’s openness and freedom. While this might be good for business in the short term, it is not good for the future of journalism worldwide. And it is not in the broader public interest. The Internet is evolving. Not long ago, when one accessed news content through the Internet, the only way to do it was on the World Wide Web—the part made up of Web pages and links.

To do this one uses a Web browser, clicking through links and pages. Many of us who have yet to join the Cult of the iPad still read much of our non-paper, non-broadcast news that way. But a growing segment of the news-consuming public is quickly leaving the World Wide Web behind because their needs are largely met by self-contained applications or “apps” downloaded onto iPads, tablet computers, and smartphones.

In a recent interview, media critic David Carr commented on his own news reading habits: “What I don’t look at is the web. The web has kind of gone away for me.” Apps are a big part of the reason.

In the Fall of 2010 the Internet gurus Chris Anderson and David Wolf published a cover story titled “The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet.” They were widely criticized at the time, but they were at least partly right.

What’s wrong with apps? After all, apps appear to be a much more promising way for news companies to generate subscription and advertising revenue than on the open Web where nobody wants to pay for anything and content is so easily ripped off.

The problem with apps is that they give the companies that run the platforms that deliver content to their devices an opportunity to censor and discriminate against certain content—not only when governments require it, but also for business reasons, or for no clear reason. You will not be too surprised to learn that in its app store for the Chinese market, Apple censors apps about the Dalai Lama, and anything else of a politically sensitive nature that the Chinese government forbids. But even here in the United States and around the Western world, we are seeing arbitrary and troubling content censorship by Apple.

This includes journalistic content by independent, small, or foreign app creators—that is clearly protected by the First Amendment in this country, and by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Take, for example, the story of the independent filmmaker Tara Hurley, who in 2009 produced a film about the massage parlor industry in the state of Rhode Island where prostitution—until the end of that year—was legal when carried out behind closed doors. Titled “Happy Endings?” the film contains interviews with women who worked in the industry as well as politicians and police. It is available for purchase and rental on Amazon and elsewhere, but last year Hurley decided to promote the film with a free iPhone app including trailers, reviews, an in app purchase of the film, Wikipedia links, and information for the viewer to reach out if they needed help if they were victims of human trafficking.

It was created professionally by a company called Stonehenge Productions, which specializes in making promotional apps for films, and which had never had an app rejected by Apple in the past. Apple denied publication of the “Happy Endings” app without any explanation. Hurley contacted Apple in an effort to appeal the decision but to this day has received no response. She points out that two TV shows dealing with prostitution produced by HBO are available on iPads and iPhones through the HBO Go app.

In 2009, the political cartoonist Mark Fiore—a freelancer who runs a syndication business—submitted a political cartoon app featuring his work making fun of various political figures, and had it rejected by the Apple app nannies. In an email, they explained it was rejected because it

contains content that ridicules public figures and is in violation of Section 3.3.14 from the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement which states: Applications may be rejected if they contain content or materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, photographs, sounds, etc.) that in Apple’s reasonable judgment may be found objectionable, for example, materials that may be considered obscene, pornographic, or defamatory.

When Fiore won a Pulitzer prize a few months later and the media exposed Apple’s rejection, he was invited to re-submit the app, and it was approved.

The moral of the story here is that when it comes to racy or controversial content, the famous and the powerful have a much easier time reaching iPhone and iPad-using audiences than freelancers, independent operators, and small media startups nobody has ever heard of. I describe several more examples in my book.

From what we can glean from publicly-known cases, it appears that apps created by non-American individuals and organizations are more likely to get blocked if they include controversial or racy content, or content likely to offend some significant segment of iPad and iPhone users—even though it is considered protected speech under the First Amendment and international law. None of these people can sue Apple in the United States or any other court because it is acting within its legal rights given that the app submitters all agreed to terms of service allowing Apple to censor whatever it wants for any reason.

It is not clear whether the big brand news organizations and media companies pay attention to or care about these types of cases—after all they are not affected. They have their own direct relationships and communication channels with Apple.

But given that the big brand news companies are working hard to attract global audiences on the iPad and iPhone, and given those devices’ global popularity, what that means is that a growing segment of the global public is relying for their information and discourse about local, national, and global events on a platform that discriminates against the most controversial and vulnerable independent creators of digital media.

This reliance might be fine for the big companies, but it bodes rather ill for the future of independent, entrepreneurial journalism and therefore, I believe, for democracy.

News and media companies that do care about the future of journalism and democracy must not turn a blind eye to Apple’s arbitrary censorship. The point is not that they should avoid Apple apps and their relationships with Apple. The point is that since the law and the constitution are apparently useless against private censorship and discrimination, the only way to get Apple to operate in a democracy-compatible manner is if Apple’s customers, business partners, and investors insist on it.

It is time for the news business to remove the scales from their eyes and move on from their blind love affair with the iPad to a realistic partnership in which news companies insist that Apple manage its content platform in a manner that is compatible not only with big-media journalism but all kinds of journalism—including the types of entrepreneurial, independent, and edgy journalism that schools like this one are encouraging graduates to engage in. For this reason, it is also important that news companies not put all their eggs in the Apple basket.

News organizations should give equal priority to developing apps for other tablet computers and smartphones running on other kinds of mobile devices rather than focusing their flagship efforts primarily around Apple products.

And then there is Facebook. A growing number of news websites either require or strongly encourage users to log in with their Facebook account in order to post comments. Last year, both the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal launched Facebook-based social news apps that enable people to see what news stories their friends are reading, sharing, and discussing. Facebook has been working with other news companies to develop similar apps.

The point of such collaborations is to reach new readers through existing readers’ friends’ networks and boost traffic to these companies’ content when hopefully more people click through to their news stories on the recommendation of friends and colleagues who share similar tastes, interests, and concerns. From a business perspective, it makes sense to pursue this sort of collaboration.

Facebook’s terms of service require account-holders to use their real names. When discovered, accounts using pseudonyms or fake identities are suspended or deactivated. There are still plenty of fake people on Facebook, but the more active and popular a person becomes within the network, the more likely their terms of service violations will be detected—or reported via Facebook’s abuse complaints mechanism by their enemies or others who wish them ill.

By tying their comments sections to Facebook logins—or by making it much easier and faster to comment via one’s Facebook login than having to register for a new account on the site—news organizations like the Los Angeles Times report that civility of comments threads and also cut down on considerable staff time that might otherwise be taken up vetting and moderating comments to keep out hate speech and obscenity.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg once remarked that people who do not identify themselves truthfully online “lack integrity.” There is something to the argument that anonymity is a convenient shield for people who do not want to be held responsible for hateful or outrageous speech benefit.

On the other hand, danah boyd, privacy advocate and expert on the online behavior of young people argues that requiring people to use their real names in social networks and news comments systems is “an authoritarian assertion of power” because it drives vulnerable people out of the public discourse—particularly around controversial issues.

A certain percentage of people out there will not participate in the online discussion of a news story—or share new information and personal observations that might even help to advance the story—if they can only easily do so under their real name. There are many reasons, including fear that their prospects for promotion or employment—or relations with family members—will be damaged if their name is linked directly to certain political views, or even recreational proclivities, or sexual preferences.

Some editors counter that this type of concern only affects a small segment of their audience and is therefore worth the tradeoff. For the individual news organization, that may sound reasonable given the need to conserve resources and increase traffic through social media partnerships.

The broader long-term context is more troubling, however. When a growing number of the country’s most influential and popular news organizations tie themselves into a social media platform that does not allow anonymity or pseudonymity, they are helping to shape an online public sphere in which unpopular and controversial speech becomes increasingly costly.

Independent and freelance journalists around the world rely heavily on social media—and particularly Facebook—to promote their work, and build an audience for their stories that may appear across a range of different news outlets. In many countries it is common for journalists to write under pen names—names that develop a distinctive voice, reputation and even credibility—in order to protect their families or for other cultural reasons.

Facebook’s real-name policy means that their enemies and critics can report them for terms of service abuse and get their accounts deactivated. In some countries, journalists use Facebook to reach their audiences even though it is dangerous to comply with the real name requirement. Across the Middle East and Africa, stories of people getting arrested as a result of their Facebook postings have become common. Just this month, the Palestinian Authority arrested a journalist for his Facebook postings, and the new Tunisian government imprisoned and sentenced two young bloggers for cartoons they had posted to their Facebook accounts.

The point, once again, is not that news companies should avoid partnerships with Facebook. However, news organizations do have a responsibility to consider what kind of rules for the global digital public discourse they are helping to reinforce.

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.

Lack of neutrality has other consequences for global information flows, which people in wealthy industrialized nations often fail to consider. Technologists in the developing world point out that if networks in the world’s major Internet markets cease to be neutral, poor and developing nations will be at an even greater disadvantage in the global marketplace of online content and services.

In late 2010, the FCC issued rules stipulating basic net neutrality standards for the United States, with a few caveats, but only for fixed-line Internet. Mobile Internet services are given a great deal more leeway to prioritize services and block applications. Given that the fastest Internet growth is in mobile, and that the fastest growing segment of mobile Internet users are lower income people who can’t afford broadband at home, the lack of neutrality on the mobile Internet has some potentially troubling implications for independent, nonprofit, and startup journalism. This is particularly disturbing when you combine this situation with arbitrary app censorship carried out by companies like Apple.

Traditionally, journalists don’t like to take political positions in public and many journalism schools, including Columbia, teach the value of remaining objective. Yet it is unfortunate and bad for the profession in the long run that news organizations are not taking a stronger stand.

Journalism schools might consider their students’ and graduates’ long-term interests and do more to speak up on this issue.

Meanwhile, as an individual journalist, if you care about your ability to survive and thrive professionally in an environment where you are more likely than not to spend at least part of your career freelancing or working in entrepreneurial media startups, I suggest you take off your objective journalist’s hat, and put on your citizen hat, and do what you can as a voter and a concerned citizen to let your elected politicians know that net neutrality and their support of it is important to you.

It would be unfair to recognize a great deal of work that many news organizations are doing to further the public interest, citizens’ right to know and journalists’ right to report on government activities.

A number of news organizations, including The New York Times, the Associated Press, and many others have been fighting hard against a growing trend of US government secrecy that the Obama administration has unfortunately reinforced despite lofty rhetoric about open government.

Yet another issue of policy and law on which journalists and news organizations cannot afford to be neutral is electronic surveillance. In the name of cyber-security, a bill recently passed by the House of Representatives, called the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act of 2011 (CISPA), seeks to expand the sharing of “cyber threat intelligence” between the government and private sector. The bill’s language, however, is over-broad and lacks necessary constraints in terms of who the information can be shared with and for what purpose.

CISPA increases the chances that, for example, digital communications of journalists investigating abuses of US government agencies could be shared with those agencies prior to publication. The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently warned that the bill’s language is so broad that any websites that publish leaked classified information, from The New York Times to Wikileaks, could fall within its scope of “threats.”

As journalism and journalists grow increasingly dependent on all things networked and digital, it is vital that we do everything possible to make sure that the Internet and all of the platforms and devices and components that are increasingly part of the news ecosystem, evolve in a way that maximizes free expression for everybody—professional or amateur—who seeks to create media. Journalists of all kinds must have some hope of being able to protect their private and confidential communications from politically motivated surveillance.

It is unlikely that people will ever be able to speak truth to power completely without fear. But at very least, we must do all we can to keep the fear factor from increasing by making sure that privacy and identity standards are compatible with dissent, controversial speech, and investigative reporting that challenges powerful governments and companies.

Just as all people are stewards of the earth, all of us are similarly stewards of the Internet. When companies, governments, and members of the general public act in their short term, economic self interest without considering the broader impact of their actions, they are more likely to act in environmentally harmful ways. It has taken a long time for people to get used to thinking more long term and more holistically about self interest in the environmental context.

Similarly, news companies and journalists need to think in a long-term, holistic way about the Internet. Decisions and behavior that may seem to make a lot of business sense can be harmful to the entire Internet ecology—and thus the future of journalism—in the medium to long term.

Journalism schools can play an important role in helping news organizations and journalists think about sustainability, but not only in terms of creating a “sustainable” business model for their company. Institutions dedicated to the future of journalism must take the lead in helping the news business—and the journalists and media entrepreneurs of the future—achieve greater awareness and clarity around critical questions for the future of both journalism and democracy more broadly. How do we make sure that short-term thinking does not corrode the Internet’s long-term value? What kinds of practices will contribute to Internet openness and freedom?

News organizations must contribute sustainably and responsibly to a free and open global Internet so that many more generations of journalists can survive and thrive.

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Rebecca MacKinnon is a journalist, co-founder of Global Voices Online, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. She is author of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.