Final exam: COM580

Part 1: opening remarks

Robert McChesney

From its inception as a mainstream media platform, the Internet has carried a promise to democratize the spread of news and information, ripping this important function of society away from the clutches of profit-driven corporations. But the web has not delivered on this promise, instead intensifying market pressures on good journalism and driving folks away from professional, unbiased sources in favor of “news” outlets that are just thinly cloaked advertising vehicles. What too often passes for “journalism” in this new media landscape are opinionated blogs that don’t deliver original reporting and PR-driven content that seeks to promote corporations.

Real reporting, the kind of that facilitates an active democracy and keeps government in check, has been drowned out by the thousands of competing voices and subject to more commercial pressure than ever before to turn a profit. In recent years we’ve seen the shuttering of newspapers like The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Rocky Mountain News that had long, proud traditions. Many other quality papers, especially in economically strapped areas such as Michigan and California, have had to convert to online-only editions. The papers staying afloat are doing so only by laying off thousands of veteran reporters each year collectively, eroding their capacity to deliver quality journalism.

We are now at the precipice of this already bad situation tumbling down a commercial cliff. The recent Supreme Court decision against the Federal Communications Commission has denied that agency the jurisdiction to regulate Internet access. This allows the neoliberals who dominate media ownership to run rampant in restricting the flow of information across cyberspace. While the initial promise of the Internet was always flawed, it at least allowed vital information that ran counter to commercial interests to still reach an audience. Without government oversight to preserve net neutrality, media conglomerates can dictate what information gets heard and what is blocked. With the neoliberal mindset focused on profits and commercial gain above all else, this would mean the death of any journalism that threatens powerful, moneymaking interests.

Journalism once had a business model that ensured that quality, objective reporting could attract paying customers. But the Internet has broken the effectiveness of this model, and now news outlets are forced to give away work that is costly and at times dangerous to produce. With Internet service providers on the verge of being able to block web content they deem not in their best interests, where will good journalism find a paying audience? Now, more than ever, we must devise a system where the government can provide financial support for good journalism through a system of subsidies that rewards quality work. Consumers can play an active role in deciding which outlets receive these subsidies by designating specific destinations for their tax dollars, preserving the delicate system of checks and balances our nation’s Founding Fathers saw as essential. We must surely do something or else risk a society completely informed by and beholden to commercial interests where the only objective is greater profits.

Ken Auletta

When Google launched its search engine more than a decade ago, few could comprehend its business model, much less believe it would turn a profit. But a free service with no ads or commercial partnerships on its home page still  evolved into one of the globe’s most prolific profit-making machines. What Google’s founders identified before anyone else in the web marketplace is that personal data is the most valuable currency a company can acquire. By knowing the web-surfing habits of billions of Internet users, the company can predict with amazing precision the websites consumers want to find. This foundation of data allowed for the development of an ad-network that paired companies with the exact pages where their sites were most likely to be noticed. It made web-based advertising affordable for the smallest businesses, and targeted enough to satisfy large corporations. Web-surfers fueled Google’s success, mostly unwittingly, simply by continuing to use the search engine religiously and leaving behind a trail of valuable data on their Internet use. The company now has unprecedented power as a gatekeeper to all of the world’s information, and its system for unlocking that content is built primarily on the staggering amount of data it has collected along the way.

The secret is now out. The new business model for web-based companies is built around free services in exchange for personal data. But while Google to this point has yet to cross the line of exposing too much personal information, a precedent has been set that could have a profound influence on our expectations for privacy. Google hit a snag when its initial version of Gmail made it impossible for users to delete any emails. Yet that level of data collection is nothing compared to what Facebook has unveiled in recent years, with the social media giant harvesting a tremendous amount of information most users would consider personal and private. Facebook owns all of this information regardless of a user’s privacy settings, and the relatively few restrictions the company puts on its use when compared to Google raise serious concerns regarding personal information being shared with commercial entities.

Facebook’s heavy-handed practice of gathering as much info as possible on users hasn’t in any way halted its rise in members. Perhaps that fact alone is the most dangerous fallout of the precedent set by Google. Web users have become desensitized to the sharing of their personal lives, and rarely hesitate anymore to reveal valuable data without a second thought. As Google continues to grow in size and scope, it will possess a huge body of information culled from the world’s books, magazines, newspapers and multimedia programs. Right now it distributes links to that vital information in an objective, unbiased system, devised by cold engineers who are governed by data and algorithms. But could the company eventually reach a point where it abuses the trust its users have placed in its searches? Already Google has been willing to compromise the integrity of its search results in order to enter the Chinese market, where government restrictions insist that certain sites and information be blocked. Will the company remain altruistic to its American audiences, or begin steering them towards commercial partners? Will it reserve the data it collects to drive the effectiveness of its search engines, or turn more and more of it over to marketers? And even if Google remains altruistic, can we trust that companies like Facebook that follow the Google model will have pure intentions in using the details of our personal lives?

While recognizing the immense benefit these free web services have provided society, we must also remain diligent in tracking how our information is being used and who’s sharing in that data. Otherwise the new business model may be exposing every element of our lives for commercial gain, a “free service” that in the end carries a tremendous personal cost.

Daniel Solove

Reputations can take a lifetime to build, yet only a few clicks to destroy. The speed and magnitude with which our names can be permanently scarred has evolved at a frightening pace through the Internet. As more and more of our personal data migrates online where it is accessible to millions, the risk that our worst mistakes become our defining character traits is more severe. Many have already been shamed through an embarrassing email being forwarded, or perhaps a video of them in public becoming a viral sensation. The unforgiving nature of a Google search ensures that once a mistake catches fire on the web, it can never be put out, turning a moment of weakness into a permanent stain on someone’s reputation.

It is becoming harder and harder to separate our professional and personal lives on the web, and as these identities blur transgressions in one can bleed over to another. Companies now expect to view their employees’ social media accounts. And electronic communications made at work can quickly be exposed to friends and family. This leaves us in a position of being unable to escape a sullied reputation. There is no respite from verbal abuse when it follows our every move on the Internet, especially as the web becomes the preferred platform of society for interpersonal communications. This can at times have tragic consequences, whether it’s the “Star Wars Kid” having to seek therapy for the embarrassment of his private videos being watched online or the recent suicide of a high school student who was bullied relentlessly both at school and the web.

With more and more personal information being willingly shared online, the number of opportunities to ruin a reputation grows exponentially. The websites a person visits are commonly tracked. The places a person frequents can be cataloged through location-based applications that run on mobile devices. The personal conversations between strained lovers on social networks can be archived and owned by third parties. All of this info has potential to damage the job prospects, social lives and financial wealth of individuals tracked in that data. Neither relevance nor news value typically plays a role in determining what information gets spread. Strangers the damaged individual will never meet  often decide what goes viral purely on entertainment value. Those swiftly consuming and sharing the information have no relationship to its source, and thus little concern if their actions unjustly handicap the hard-earned reputation of the subject.

There is no foolproof way to reverse this trend, nor instantly repair tarnished reputations. But we must develop a legal framework that puts more responsibility and obligation on third parties not to post or share outright misleading information that can unfairly damage a person’s livelihood. We must also take greater care on what we share online, and how we behave in any setting where we could be watched. There must be procedures in place to give juvenile offenders a clean slate as adults, so the relatively minor transgressions they commit as youths don’t haunt them for the rest of their lives. Some information, especially that deemed to be libelous or deliberately hurtful, must not be rewarded with prime spots on search engine results based simply on popularity.

There is an element of personal responsibility when it comes to online reputations, and many of those most irrevocably damaged have only themselves to blame for sharing information they never should have posted in the first place. But without a regulatory structure to maintain the accuracy of information posted online, the punishment of these mistakes disproportionately matches the crime. Unless we’re prepared to have our worst moments always threaten to define our identities, we need to take proactive steps to keep unjustified shaming from catching fire with such fury on the web.

Jonathan Zittrain

The common assumption for the Internet among many in the media industry is that it would always evolve toward a state of openness. While some feared the competition and relative chaos an unchecked flow of information would produce, they nonetheless assumed that the web would remain an equal opportunity platform for all to utilize as they see fit.

But while the early incarnations of the web certainly followed this model, recent events foreshadow a very different direction for the Internet. An open Internet arose in large part by accident, the product of well-meaning computer scientists and engineers who worked collectively to create the first networks without commercial motives in mind. Now that the Internet is ubiquitous in daily life, it is being consumed more frequently from a passive state, with corporations having control over what content and information is viewed.

What we are seeing today through the rising popularity of Apple products such as the iPhone and iPad is a return to the walled gardens of America Online that characterized the early web. During this period of initial commercial Internet access, freedom to browse the entire web was substituted for the convenience of having an Internet Service Provider section off partner websites its interface would steer all traffic towards. The next generation of ISPs and web browsers obliterated this approach and left the web open for all sites to potentially get noticed, but that model is by no means safe in light of nongenerative devices that offer the user little to no control over their online navigation.

Apple’s total control over which applications can run on their latest devices sets a dangerous precedent for dictating how consumers experience the web. Already that experience is profoundly altered on an iPad by its inability to load Flash-based websites. A heavy-handed approach by Apple over application programmers and web developers puts the company in a position to dictate what its consumers see and hear online. Apple may not be alone in exerting this control. The Federal Communication Commission’s inability to regulate ISPs, as defined by the recent Supreme Court ruling, opens the door to a tiered system of online access that locks out some sites not deemed in the best commercial interests of the media conglomerates who control the broadband lines. This would put consumers at the mercy of corporations in determining what slice of the web they access.

The loss of a generative internet would be greater than just limitations on web surfing. Since its inception the Internet has always promoted collaboration and participation, resulting in the innovation and creativity that comes from sharing knowledge and ideas. Computers always allowed for this collaboration by making it possible to produce, upload and share content in cyberspace. Yet a web controlled by media conglomerates does not promote generativity, instead making the lines of communication one way. The iPad, for example, doesn’t even have any inputs with which to load original content, making it a device conducive only to passive web consumption. If this trend continues, the web will devolve into just another television or movie screen for which to view outside content.

As consumers we must push for open-sourced software and devices that allow for active online participation. Programs must allow for more user-generated content, not lock out creations made outside approved corporate channels. The farther we stray from generative devices being the norm, the less ownership we take over the Internet and the less freedom we have to fulfill the Internet’s original promise of open collaboration that knows no geographic or demographic boundaries. That is far too much to give up for the simple sake of convenience.

Part 2: my critiques

Mr. Zittrain, you’ve articulated quite well the benefits of an open and collaborative web ecosystem where consumers play an active role. But left out of this description is the significant portion of the population who as of now plays no part in the Internet’s development nor enjoys any of its benefits. At the WWW2010 international conference in Raleigh last month, Danny Weitzner, an associate administrator for policy at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, spoke with alarm about the 35 percent of Americans who don’t use the Internet in any way. His partner during this panel discussion, World Wide Web Founder Tim Berners-Lee, noted that only a quarter of the world’s population even has access to the Internet (FutureWeb Blog, “Internet needs to have more accessibility to poorer countries, Berners-Lee and Weitzner say”). If the generative and open web you champion was indeed  attainable for all, then a shift to a closed model would certainly be worth mobilizing against. But that’s not the case, and if ceding some control over the web allows more people to plug in, are we really justified in denying them that opportunity?

It’s becoming more and more apparent that such trade-offs will be necessary. The FCC’s ambition plan to expand broadband access was met by immediate opposition from cable companies and Internet Service Providers who don’t want to cede control of their business (The New York Times, “Effort to widen U.S. Internet Access sets up battle”). The Supreme Court ruling you point out involving the FCC and Comcast prevents the agency from strong-arming these companies into providing Internet access to a greater portion of the population. The government alone can‘t afford to finance even a tiny fraction of the broadband networks necessary to reach all Americans, even when utilizing a multibillion-dollar plan. It then falls upon ISPs to build the infrastructure, and they’ll expect some control in return.

While this would indeed mark the end of net neutrality, the savings realized by charging more for high bandwidth would free up space to offer basic Internet access at a reduced rate. It could also pay for the construction of new lines that reach rural areas. The 35 percent of Americans who don’t use the Internet may now start hooking on, as the new price points make it affordable to do so. They may not enjoy complete freedom and control in navigating the web, but it’s a big improvement to what they have now.

A similar argument can be made in support of nongenerative devices such as the iPad , which severely restrict how the web is experienced but at the same time open up access to those who hadn’t enjoyed it before. In your recent op/ed piece in the Financial Times, you criticize the iPad for being the antithesis of the original Apple Computer that invited its users to program as a blank slate (Financial Times, “A fight over freedom at Apple’s core”). The iPad, by contrast, grants no such control to users and renders them as passive consumers. This either/or argument is made with the assumption that all computer users want the freedom to code their devices, or even possess the knowledge to exert this degree of control. The vast majority of computer users lack this expertise, including almost everyone who falls in the 35 percent category of Internet non-users. Whether they have a generative or non-generative device won’t make much of a difference in their degree of collaboration on the web. The only difference is that well-made devices such as the iPad make it easier and more affordable than ever to tap into the fountain of multimedia content available online, enticing new Internet users who previously had been unable or unwilling to experience the web’s benefits. We can’t assume that the entire country is tech savvy, and it is in the nation’s best interest to make sure even those without training in how to use a computer can still access the web.

You sound a convincing alarm on the dangers of nongenerative devices becoming the norm, robbing all of society from the chance to take hold of the Internet’s reins and create new programs and content. This is indeed a scenario we need to avoid, but the current online landscape shows no sign of an open Internet disappearing for good. Open source software still plays a prominent role in how we experience the web, whether that’s through the success of the Firefox browser or the development of HTML5 to create multimedia graphics without the use of proprietary tools such as Flash. Any fears that the iPhone would usher in a new area of closed operating systems for smart phones can be put to rest by recent sales figures showing that phones running the open Android system have eclipsed their Apple counterparts (Market Watch, “Android Shakes Up U.S. Smartphone Market”). The open, generative web we now enjoy doesn’t appear to be leaving anytime soon. The only question is whether this all-you-can download model will be the only way to access the Internet, in which case some segments of the population will inevitably be priced out. Ideally, we could offer high-speed access to the full web for all, but the reality is that a stripped down version controlled to a degree by corporate interests might be the only way to get everyone hooked up. I’d ask you, is preserving a completely open web such an important objective that we’re willing to lock out a segment of the population that can’t or won’t participate in online collaboration?

Mr. Auletta, your warnings on the loss of privacy that may result from the success of Google’s business model is well founded. But even if it’s true that the spread of personal data could have negative consequences for many individuals, there remains the question of whether that threat alone is enough reason to strip individuals of the choice to share their personal information with whomever they please. There are both considerable benefits and potential consequences of revealing too much online, but given the immense attraction free services such as Google and Facebook provide, shouldn’t everyone retain complete choice and control over their own data?

For the most part, as you  state in your book Googled and in your comments today, Google has honored the trust users have placed in its services. The data it collects is put to mutually beneficial use improving search engine results and devising efficient advertising networks. Facebook is indeed more invasive in the amount of personal information it collects, and more lax in how that information is shared. It is even expanding its data collection beyond the Facebook site, encouraging people to “like” various media across the web and then have that endorsement broadcast back onto their Facebook page (Slate; “Will all those like buttons make Facebook bigger than Google?”). This has prompted significant backlash and calls for users to delete their Facebook accounts so that private facts aren’t spread to marketers (Gizmodo, “Top ten reasons you should quit Facebook”). Yet despite these warnings, Facebook’s membership continues to grow as a significant rate, with its 400 million members now making it the most visited site in the U.S. (Hitwise; “Facebook reaches top ranking in the U.S.”). You point to this fact as perhaps a symptom of our society’s lack of care over privacy. Yet it could also be emblematic of a simple cost/benefit analysis where the majority of consumers have concluded that the advantages they gain through these networks outweigh whatever drawbacks come from making personal information public.

This is especially evident in the rise of location-based services on mobile devices, which have emerged as perhaps the fastest-growing trend in content delivery. Whether through GPS programs such as Google Latitude or popular smart phone applications such as Gowalla and Foursquare, more and more consumers are willingly sharing their exact physical locations in exchange for information customized to that area. The number of check-ins on Foursquare is doubling almost every month (Techcrunch, “Foursquare passes 1 million check-ins a week”). Most of the consumers using these applications give them strong endorsements, as tracked by the tens of thousands of positive mentions they receive on social networking sites each day (Mashable, “Foursquare vs. Gowalla: Who’s winning the geolocation war”). There’s enough positive buzz that many large brands have jumped into the field, with Foursquare alone signing partnerships with the likes of HBO, Bravo, Zagat, The History Channel, Pepsi and The New York Times during the past few months (Advertising Age, “Beyond the Badge: Big media brands strike Foursquare deals”).

It is open to debate whether consumers are making a fair trade in giving up so much information on their movements, habits and preferences in exchange for customized information. One could argue convincingly that companies such as Facebook and Foursquare must do a better job of clearly stating their privacy policies, or that the government must step in to inform consumers. But ultimately it comes down to a personal choice on the part of each consumer whether or not to share, and it’s hard to argue against those who have made the indenpendent decision to put their lives online for the world to see. Perhaps there is even a benefit in living a transparent lifestyle, as it forces individuals to behave ethically, honestly and morally at all times.

In our debates regarding privacy, we must also not lose sight of the tremendous advantages afforded society by the rise of Google. While the company does have a tremendous amount of concentrated power, without its presence the vast majority of information would remain locked away from the average consumer. Through Google, consumers now have access to more information than ever before, opening up new opportunities for small businesses and start-up companies to rise to the top of the market with a quality product. These benefits for all web users far outweigh the limited number of cases where lack of privacy has had damaging results. If the further erosion of privacy is indeed a significant threat, which of these free services will we be willing to pay for, and who has the authority to make the decision for others exactly how much personal data is too much to share?

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