For those wanting a comprehensive and comprehendable guide to the current issues which are dominating debate around the web as an interoperable platform as opposed to a walled garden, the latest precis from the Economist is pretty good. The liberal with a small ‘l’ publication, comes out in favour of a genuinely free market for the internet, which is no surprise given its over arching philosophy towards markets of all types. But at least it has a clearly expressed opinion on an important issue. It has made me think however that it is more true now than ever that organisations that have a relationship with digital creation or distribution of services and content, will increasingly need a defined position on the open vs. closed issue regarding the internet. One has to admire Rupert Murdoch and News International in this respect. There is nothing ambiguous no about his company’s relationship to the open web, even though the pro-closed stance is costing his organisation reputation, reach and cash in the short term.

It will be interesting to see now how this burst of philosophical clarity, from a very muddled beginning, informs how News now participates in debate around net neutrality, there is a great piece here, from the New York Times on exactly this issue. I particularly like the  succinct pay-off from Barry Diller:

The silence of big media companies like Comcast and the News Corporation on the issue has been noticeable. Media companies’ traditional business models have been about controlled pathways to the customer, and they may see benefits in restoring some of that control.

Mr. Diller asserted that the Google-Verizon proposal “doesn’t preserve ‘net neutrality,’ full stop, or anything like it.” Asked if other media executives were staying quiet because they stand to gain from a less open Internet, he said simply, “Yes.”

Of course some News Corp employees have been far from quiet, if a little incoherent, on this subject. Flippancy aside, it is easy for carriage and distribution companies to adopt a consistent philosophy on the open web, as most stand to gain from trying to force the internet into a market-shaped entity.

Steve Jobs, for instance, is like a pig in muck within his walled orchard. The closed system is entirely consistent with Jobs’s philosophy and the underpinning principles of the Apple brand. It was always an exclusive product, which sought to limit its market.  Bill Gates and Microsoft, represented a kind of technological communism; every desktop in the world would be equal as long as it ran Windows, technological excellence sacrificed for uniform utility, market opposition ruthlessly snuffed out, 100 per cent of the market 100 per cent of the time.

Then, as if to prove a point, using the profits for wider social redistribution beyond yacht makers and housebuilders. Steve Jobs and Apple, by contrast, for years took only 10 per cent of the market. On a press trip to silicon Valley in the 90s I was told by a former Apple employee ‘ 10 per cent is fine – they don’t want just anybody buying their products’.

For content companies, and particularly news organisations which rely on the openness of information as their key currency, the issue of how to reconcile what are sometimes conflicting interests will be more difficult. Inevitably some of this leads back to the issue of charging for content and the philospohical baggage surrounding the purpose of journalism. It has always struck me that the natural conclusion of Walter Isaacson’s argument laid out in Time last year that all news should be paid for at the point of access did not tackle the problematic nature of its natural conclusion. He merrily riffed on the idea of micropayments – in a pre-iPad era, thus:

Under a micropayment system, a newspaper might decide to charge a nickel for an article or a dime for that day’s full edition or $2 for a month’s worth of Web access. Some surfers would balk, but I suspect most would merrily click through if it were cheap and easy enough.

The system could be used for all forms of media: magazines and blogs, games and apps, TV newscasts and amateur videos, porn pictures and policy monographs, the reports of citizen journalists, recipes of great cooks and songs of garage bands. This would not only offer a lifeline to traditional media outlets but also nourish citizen journalists and bloggers. They have vastly enriched our realms of information and ideas, but most can’t make much money at it.

The natural conclusion of this argument is that ALL information becomes paid for at the point of consumption. Which cannot be either sustainable or desirable in a democratic society. Systems of disseminating information have always enjoyed a mixed economy – the town crier AND the pamphleteer. Broadcast news AND limited subscription journals.

There is nothing inconsistent about have paid for products and free products, or like the Economist, deriving most of your income from subscription but advocating caution when it comes to stitching up access deals.

If government’s released data, at a price, most news outlets would be alarmed and outraged. Paying for access to press conferences, restrictive exercise of IP rights over all events, aggressive trademarking, are all possible trends and all abhorrent to journalism and news reporting organisations as well as detrimental to wider society.

The news business still has considerable influence with government. The internet governance issue and development of regulation in this area cannot be left to private companies alone, but the narrative which is best for society might not necessarily appear best for shareholders in news companies. It will be interesting to collect the views of big media as the debate hots up.

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