Rupert Murdoch remains one of the most powerful men in media even after the recent phone-hacking scandal, but he has still yet to grasp the role and power of the internet. For an 80 year-old man with the (dead-wood) newspaper business as his soul you could forgive him for not liking the technology that is rapidly killing it, but it is more than that – he seem utterly incapable of appreciating the way it has fundamentally changed the way people interact with media.
Murdoch has a string of online failures under his belt, most notably MySpace which is rumoured to have lost News Corp around $1 billion, but his failures online run deeper than rather large swathes of red on his accounts. Originally Murdoch thought that the internet was just another channel for his cross promotions and influence plays – if he could own the method of people’s communication then he could influence it – that is how he has always done things. Newspapers were the main source of information and how it was disseminated to the public, and then it was TV. Both are simple uni-directional systems, where the newspaper or broadcaster holds all the cards, all the influence and can therefore impress their views on the public. The internet is different.
The internet was built from scratch as a mesh/spiders-web – with every part linked to and influencing another – information was meant to flow both ways. It is social. The earliest browsers came with web publishing tools built in, so anyone on the internet could add to it – not just the broadcasters and newspaper editors. Newspapers and broadcasters have long been the places to look for breaking news – but now it is Twitter and people on the street. Most still look to broadcasters like the BBC for confirmation, but stories are very often broken on the social web, with highly skilled users managing to sift, sort, and verify before republishing. You don’t need a huge media team and massive newsroom budget anymore – you need trusted sources (just as news teams always have needed with fixers), and the ability to consume huge amounts of information very quickly. The industries in which Murdoch has found his wealth and influence are on their way out.
Murdoch wants to remake the internet in the image of the one-way information networks he already control – namely TV and newspapers – and as such found time in his busy schedule last week to visit Washington DC and make a personal plea to Congress to support both SOPA and Protect IP – two of the most repressive censorship laws proposed in a democracy. The laws, if passed, would give large corporate copyright interests to have whole sites taken down on the allegations of piracy. You would never get a Youtube, a SoundCloud, or pretty much any other media sharing site or service developed with these laws in place. As you can see from the recent Dajaz1 case and the takedown of the MegaUpload publicity video – actual guilt of copyright infringement has little to do with takedowns, and giving these obviously interested parties more power outside of the courts is not a good idea.
No technology has affected how each of us work and play as quickly as much and as quickly the internet – and that is because people are social and how we use media should reflect that. Newspapers have only been around for about 300 years in any meaningful sense, but prior to that – all information was spread from person to person. Information has been a social currency for the vast majority of human existence, and modern technology and the internet is making it social again. Newspapers, radio, and TV – the one-way mediums – are a mere blip in the history of information and knowledge exchange – and were one-way only because that was the limitation of that day’s technology. Rupert Murdoch is trying to reshape technology to fit around his limitations by law – because neither the technology providers (ISPs, websites and services) nor the public would choose those limitations if they had the option.
Yes much of today’s visual media content (TV shows and films) are made by these huge corporations and they want to protect that content from piracy – but the successes of NetFlix and Spotify show that you can beat piracy by offering a better legal option. These media conglomerates would like people to forget that many have a history of copyright infringement of their own: a number of US publishing firms got rich from republishing UK literary works in the US without paying the author a penny; plenty of record labels have been found guilty of not paying their artists the rates they deserved for their music; film companies have been known to “borrow” parts of scripts and plot twists from others without payment or recognition; and some newspapers still regularly use unlicensed photographs to accompany their articles.
Would SOPA or Protect IP protect the artists and creatives from their works being abused by the corporations? If a photographer found his photo being used by a newspaper website without a license – could he have that newspaper taken down from the internet, the way the newspaper could take-down a blog for republishing a story? Will SOPA and Protect IP actually mean more money or better rights for those producing the works? No. These laws will hand more power to these media conglomerates than they have ever had – powers that can and will be abused. Rupert Murdoch supports them because he craves power and influence – something he is seeing slip from his fingers towards the people who actually create, remix, and interact on the internet.