Murdochology

James, Wendy and Rupert Murdoch front the British Parliamentary Committee on Media, Culture and Sport, 2011. Image: Sydney orning Herald.

James, Wendy and Rupert Murdoch front the British Parliamentary Committee on Media, Culture and Sport, 2011. Image: Sydney Morning Herald.

Over at the Sydney Review of Books, I’ve got a long-form review essay on two of the latest books out on Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and the British phone hacking scandal.

I won’t re-post here, but rather direct you over to the site, which is publishing some very fine work at the moment.

However, the guts of my argument can be summarised as follows:

Back in 2004, reviewing a previous wave of Murdochology that had washed ashore the sandy beaches of the London Review of Books, John Lanchester, following Frederic Jameson, argued that the man himself personified a kind of ‘cultural logic’ of postmodern capitalism. ‘Rupert Murdoch is not so much a man, or a cultural force, as a portrait of the modern world,’ Lanchester wrote, ‘he is the way we live now; he is the media magnate we deserve.’

Lanchester wrote that Murdoch’s singular attribute is his flexibility: a ‘flakiness’ in which ‘the all-over-the-globe nature of the News Corp empire seems to be paralleled by a personal all-over-the-placeness in Murdoch.’ Like the ‘hot money’ of the international currency markets, his energies and attentions flow unpredictably and suddenly, to wherever the opportunity lies. He understands, in the end, perhaps only one lesson: that symbols are powerful, and that in a democracy, this power can be used. One of the things that Murdoch likes to do with his media power is, of course, to make money. But he also likes to acquire more power: for instance, by gaining the ear of prime ministers. You never know when you might need a regulator to sign off on your next deal.

Just like capital, Murdoch can be channelled and regulated, stymied here and divested there. But, like some protean force of nature, he can’t really be stopped. He is too powerful for that, too wealthy, too smart. This is why the common attribution of Murdoch as a ‘media baron’ is so apt. Unlike his deputies, or the CEOs of truly globalised media corporations like Vivendi or Time Warner, Murdoch’s power derives not just from his occupation of a top ‘command post of the social structure’. Like a feudal aristocrat, he also enjoys considerable privileges and resources that attach to his person and family. As long as he keeps hold of those special voting shares in his various corporations, the Bermuda bank accounts and the key trusts and holding companies, he will retain his over-mighty stature. When he dies, of course, all bets are off. The trusts will vest and his children and ex-wives will struggle for control. But for now he is unassailable. As Wolff wrote recently, ‘2014 is going to be a good year for Rupert Murdoch.’

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$7 billion of neoliberalism

The Stationers' Company mark

The Stationers’ Company: an early example of government cultural policy. Image: Wikipedia.

Australian economist Jason Potts has restarted an important debate about cultural policy in this country with an article entitled “You’ve got $7 billion – so how will you fund the arts?“. I just wish he hadn’t analysed Australian cultural policy from the sort of instrumentalist, neoliberal position we find so familiar in many other spheres of policy debate.

I’ll say right up the top that I’m a fan of Potts’ work, and think him a pretty clever fellow. His work on evolutionary economics is in its own way quite heterodox, and a far cry from the sort of automatic and reflexive market worship we often associate with both the RMIT Economics school, and the Institute for Public Affairs, which he is apparently doing some work with.

On the other hand, his op-ed in The Conversation on cultural policy  is not one of his more perspicacious efforts. Justin O’Connor has already written a useful response, but I thought I’d add a few points of my own, set forth below.

Let’s start by setting forward Potts’ argument. Then we’ll move on to a critique.

Last year the Australian Bureau of Statistics did the maths – government spends about A$7 billion annually in Australia on arts and culture. The exact dollar figure varies depending on what we count, but it includes heritage, broadcasting and botanical gardens, along with all the usual suspects: performing arts, literature, film, visual arts, and so on.

This is apples, oranges and all sorts of random fruit.  “Heritage” funding, for instance, includes such things as war memorials, botanical gardens, zoos and some national parks expenditure. That’s a pretty different sort of thing to grants to game design companies or tax incentives to Hollywood movie studios. Does it actually make sense to treat all of these things as the same sort of expenditure?

Anyway, moving on:

To make this exercise fun, let’s suppose that no political horse-trading was involved in reaching this figure. Let’s assume this figure is the result of disinterested economic calculation of the size of the positive externality in the production of a public good, all wrapped in willingness-to-pay studies, and tied with a big bright cost-benefit ribbon.

So what’s next?

Do we put away our box of shiny economic tools and turn to grubby political compromise to allocate the exact market-failure correcting amount of public funding?

In Australia, as in Europe, this is more or less what we do. Economics to justify an economically efficient level of spending – and politics to implement it.

Really? Last time I looked, in most nation-states, including most democracies, politics is almost always the over-riding factor in the way  budget priorities are set. Sure, politicians and lobbyists and ordinary citizens use economic arguments to make the case for this spending increase or that tax cut. But the process is always and by definition political. On the really big picture stuff, economics arguably can’t really help us. For instance, how much should Australia invest in national defence, or climate change mitigation? The answer depends on inherently political judgments, such as whether you think global warming is real, or the likelihood of a major war.

Indeed, ‘economic efficiency’ is itself an inherently political argument, because it applies a very particular set of assumptions to public policy — namely that Pareto efficiency can actually hold in the first place. In markets in which there is imperfect information — and cultural markets are amongst the most opaque of all — Pareto efficiency may well be impossible. Potts knows this, which is why his quip about the “exact market-failure correcting amount of public funding” strikes me as disingenuous.

So let’s get to the guts of Potts’ argument:

… modern economics suggests that it would be better if we turned the process upside down. Let politicians determine the level of funding in a given area – and let economists determine the allocation.

Why? The political model of funding allocation is very bad at creating – or even recognising – new knowledge. In fact, political allocation mechanisms cause incentives that reward lobbying and punish experimental or innovative thinking.

Only by weakening those incentives can arts and cultural funding seek to be more than a rearguard preservation exercise or sinecure for vested interests.

I suppose it’s something of ad hominem attack to point this out, but it’s just a tad ironic that the person making this argument is a Federation Fellow of a publicly funded Australian university. A person writing for a website, by the way, also funded by universities and the government, using a medium — the internet — that was created almost exclusively by public investment in research.

“Political allocation mechanisms”, by which I think Potts means governments making budget decisions, certainly create incentives that reward lobbying. Then again, so do market mechanisms. Markets require the state to provide a level playing field via such basic institutions as property rights, police forces and courts of law. All of these create incentives for vested interests to plead their cause.

This is no trivial point, by the way: the cultural industries are completely dependent on intellectual property rights such as copyright and patents. The very fact that many cultural goods are non-rivalrous and non-excludable creates huge incentives for content industries to lobby governments to create and strengthen IP regulations — as has been well documented by researchers such as Lessig. When property rights become unenforceable, digital goods become a whole lot less valuable. Anyway, Potts’ claim was that public spending creates lobbying, which is bad. On this analysis, many of the cherished market mechanisms of the cultural industries must also be bad, because they were created via lobbying.

This points to a further naievete: the implicit belief that cultural goods and services are just like any other industrial product.

Even a moment’s reflection shows us this isn’t true. The products of cultural industries are not like any old widget or commodity: they are not even really the same thing as an iPhone or an operating system. Cultural industries produce symbols, and symbols are powerful (or at least highly influential). An aluminium ingot or a wind turbine cannot affect the democratic judgment or voting intentions of millions of citizens. A newspaper empire or television network can.

It doesn’t really matter whether you think that the power of media companies to swing elections is illusory. The history of modern media policy tells us that governments certainly do think symbols are powerful. Media has generally often been heavily regulated, sometimes on the grounds of public interest, but more commonly for naked reasons of political expediency. Even in the US, with its famous First Amendment, successive Washington administrations have had no qualms about controlling spectrum, imposing stringent copyright regulations, and spying extensively on their citizens’ communications. Hosni Mubarak turned off the internet in Egypt for a reason. Whether it’s internet filters or the Stationers Company, the political nature of cultural industries means they can’t be divorced from questions of power.

This curious ignorance of the symbolic reality of culture is often found amongst unsophisticated approaches to cultural economics — much as economics as taught in the modern university tends to ignore key aspects of sociology. As a result, when economists issue prescriptions for cultural policy, they tend to propose cures that are far worse than the supposed disease.

Perhaps this is why Potts misconstrues key facts about real-life cultural policy. For instance, he seems to think arts funding is about “inputs, not outputs”, when in fact nearly all Australian government arts grants are legal contracts specifying outcomes, allowing the government to recoup the funding if not properly acquitted. He also equates prizes as some sort of gold standard of outcome, which is strange because prize committees show exactly the sort of “bullshit” he decries in grant panels.

Similarly, when he argues for “tax credits to anyone – private citizen, corporation, foundation or NGO alike – for spending on arts and culture”, he seems to imply these don’t currently exist. In fact, they do. An individual donating to a DGR-status cultural organisation already receives a tax credit, while a non-profit NGO or foundation already pays no tax beyond the GST.

Where to next for the Google Book Settlement?

This week a US judge ruled against the Google Book Settlement, the latets in a seven year legal saga that I’ve covered in some depth here.

Jerry Brito has a good explainer of the background of the case:

In mid-2005, the Author’s Guild and the American Association of Publishers filed suit to stop Google from scanning any more books. Soon the Author’s Guild’s case was certified as a class-action lawsuit, meaning that anyone who had ever published a book—millions of authors—would be part of the class represented and would be bound by the result of the case.

An Unsettling Settlement

Three years later, after extensive negotiations, the parties announced they had reached a settlement. Google would pay $125 million up front and would then be allowed to continue scanning books and making them available online. More importantly, Google would be allowed to offer not just snippets, but it would be allowed to sell entire text of books as well. The copyright holder would get about 2/3 of the revenues and Google would keep 1/3.

On its surface, the proposed settlement was a boon for all involved. Google would get to continue digitizing books, authors and publishers would get a cut of the profits, and consumers would get universal access to almost all of the world’s books. But reading between the lines, the settlement proved to be problematic.

Because it was a settlement to a class-action lawsuit, it meant that all authors who had ever published a book were bound. Google could scan any book without first asking for permission. If an author didn’t want his book to be scanned or included in Google’s database, he had to contact Google and opt-out. This would have turned copyright on its head.

As a result, many authors protested. The Author’s Guild and the publisher’s association had negotiated on behalf of millions of authors, and many felt the deal didn’t represent their wishes. Almost 7,000 authors wrote to the court asking to be removed from the lawsuit’s plaintiff class.

Saving the Orphans

Another contentious aspect of the settlement was how it treated “orphan works,” books the authors of which are unknown or can’t be found. It’s a well-known problem in copyright that members of Congress have tried to fix several times.

The problem is that if a company like Google wants to digitize a copyrighted book, and it can’t find its author to ask for permission, then its choices are 1) scan the book anyway and face heavy penalties if the author surfaces later and sues, or 2) leave the book undigitized and out of a universal library. As a result, hundreds of thousands of books are in a kind of limbo, not accessible to readers even if the author may well have been fine with digitization.

The Google Books settlement presented a solution to the problem. Because it bound all authors—-known and unknown—-Google could proceed to scan orphan works without having to worry. If an author later surfaced who didn’t want his book used, he could no longer sue Google. He could opt-out of the program and claim a check for the revenues associated with his book, but no more.

Some welcomed this solution to the problem, but others, including the Department of Justice, pointed out to the court that it would give Google a monopoly over orphan works. Because the settlement would only apply to Google, if another party like Amazon or the Internet Archive wanted to create its own digital library that included orphan works, it would not get the same protection.

And it wouldn’t be easy for other to get the same deal. Short of Congressional action, the only way a company like Amazon could get similar treatment would be to settle a class action suit of their own—a very difficult and time-consuming set of events to replicate. Additionally, because the authors and publishers who negotiated the Google deal are getting a cut of revenue, some have suggested that it would be in their interest to make sure Google remained a monopoly and would therefore not settle as easily with other parties.

What’s Next

Because class-action lawsuits can be as controversial as this one, the law requires that a court approve a settlement before it becomes binding. The court accepted over 500 briefs from various parties supporting or opposing the settlement and early last year held a hearing on the fairness of the settlement. It rejected the case yesterday.

The options available now to Google and the authors and publishers are:

  1. Continue litigating the original lawsuit, which is an unlikely scenario.
  2. Amend the settlement to make it opt-in, meaning that authors would have to give permission before their books are scanned.
  3. Appeal the judge’s decision to a higher court.

Judge Chin seemed to invite a new settlement, saying in his opinion that “Many of the concerns raised in the objections would be ameliorated if the [settlement] were converted from an ‘opt-out’ settlement to an ‘opt-in’ settlement.”

In the New York Times, Robert Darnton, himself a librarian and a strident if highly-0informed critic of the deal, weighed in with this opinion piece:

This decision is a victory for the public good, preventing one company from monopolizing access to our common cultural heritage.

Nonetheless, we should not abandon Google’s dream of making all the books in the world available to everyone. Instead, we should build a digital public library, which would provide these digital copies free of charge to readers. Yes, many problems — legal, financial, technological, political — stand in the way. All can be solved.

The Chronicle of Higher Education carries a good interview with Pamela Samuelson:

It’s the only ruling really that the judge, I think, could have made. The settlement was so complex, and it was so far-reaching. With the Department of Justice and the governments of France and Germany stridently opposed to the settlement, it seems to me that the judge really didn’t have all that much choice. So the ultimate ruling, that the settlement is not fair, reasonable, and adequate to the class, is one that I think was inevitable.

The thing that surprised me about the opinion was that he took seriously the issues about whether the Authors Guild and some of its members had adequately represented the interests of all authors, including academic authors and foreign authors. That was very gratifying because I spent a lot of time crafting letters to the judge saying that academic authors did have different interests. Academic authors, on average, would prefer open access. Whereas the guild and its members, understandably, want to do profit maximization.

The EFF’s Corynne McSherry has this analysis:

On the policy front, the court recognized – as do we – the extraordinary potential benefits of the settlement for readers, authors and publishers. We firmly believe that the world’s books should be digitized so that the knowledge held within them can made available to people around the world. But the court also recognized that the settlement could come at the price of undermining competition in the marketplace for digital books, giving Google a de facto monopoly over orphan books (meaning, works whose owner cannot be located). The court concluded that solving the orphan works problem is properly a matter for Congress, not private commercial parties. Sadly, Congress has thus far lacked the will to do so. Perhaps yesterday’s decision will finally spur Congress to revisit this important issue and pass comprehensive orphan works legislation, that allows for mass book digitization.

That said, the court also got some things fundamentally wrong in its copyright analysis. For example, it states that “a copyright owner’s right to exclude others from using his property is fundamental and beyond dispute” and then proceeds to quote at length from the letters of numerous authors (and their descendants) who share the misguided notion that a copyright is, by definition, an exclusive right to determine how a work can be used. We respectfully disagree. Copyright law grants to authors significant powers to manage exploitation of creative works as a function of spurring the creation of more works, not as a natural or moral right. And those powers are subject to numerous important exceptions and limitations, such as the first sale and fair use doctrines. Those limits are an essential part of the copyright bargain, which seeks to encourage the growth and endurance of a vibrant culture by both rewarding authors for their creative investments and ensuring that others will have the opportunity to build on those creative achievements. Thus, as the Supreme Court has explained, such limits are “neither unfair nor unfortunate” but rather “the means by which copyright advances the progress of science and art.” If the legal issues raised in the underlying lawsuit are ever litigated on the merits, let’s hope this or any future judge keeps the traditional American copyright bargain firmly in mind.

Michael Liedtke of the Associated Press thinks this is a micvrocosm of the larger anti-turst and monopoly challenges facing Google:

This week’s ruling from U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin did more than complicate Google’s efforts to make digital copies of the world’s 130 million books and possibly sell them through an online book store that it opened last year. It also touched upon antitrust, copyright and privacy issues that are threatening to handcuff Google as it tries to build upon its dominance in Internet search to muscle into new markets.

“This opinion reads like a microcosm of all the big problems facing Google,” said Gary Reback, a Silicon Valley lawyer who represented a group led by Google rivals Microsoft Corp. andAmazon.com Inc. to oppose the digital book settlement.

Google can only hope that some of the points that Chin raised don’t become recurring themes as the company navigates legal hurdles in the months ahead.

The company is still trying to persuade the U.S. Justice Department to approve a $700 million purchase of airline fare tracker ITA Software nearly nine months after it was announced. Regulators are focusing its inquiry into whether ITA would give Google the technological leverage to create an unfair advantage over other online travel services. Google argues it will be able to provide more bargains and convenience for travellers if it’s cleared to own ITA’s technology.

In Europe and the state of Texas, antitrust regulators are looking into complaints about Google abusing its dominance of Internet search to unfairly promote its own services and drive up its advertising prices.

And Google is still trying fend off an appeal in another high-profile copyright case, one stemming from its 2006 acquisition of YouTube, the Internet’s leading video site. Viacom Inc. is seeking more than $1 billion in damages after charging YouTube with misusing clips from Comedy Central, MTV and other Viacom channels. A federal judge sided with Google, saying YouTube had done enough to comply with digital copyright laws in its early days.

One of my favourite comentators on Google is of course the one-and-only Siva Vaidhyanathan, who is quoted in this excellent Inside Higher Ed piece:

Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia and a notable Google gadfly, said the company overplayed its hand by essentially trying to rewrite the rules governing the copying and distribution of book content through a class-action settlement. “Google clearly flew too close to the sun on this one,” he wrote in an e-mail. “…This is not what class-action suits and settlements are supposed to do.”

Vaidhyanathan said that Google now faces the choice of either continuing to fight for its interpretation of copyright law in the courts or scaling back its plans for a digital bookstore. “If Google decides to take the modest way out, it can still ask Congress to make the needed changes to copyright law that would let Google and other companies and libraries compete to provide the best information to the most people,” the media scholar says. “Congress should have been the place to start this in the first place.”

 

 

 

 

Wikileaks, information and democracy

The scene outside Julian Assange's extradition hearing at Westminster Magistrates Court, London, December 7th 2010. Image: AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

Like most of the rest of the world, I’ve been fascinated by the recent developments in the world of new media.

“New media” is a much-abused phrase, but in the case of Wikileaks and Twitter, the phrase is literally accurate. Wikileaks and Twitter really are new mediums: they are less than five years old.

A wiki and a social network like Twitter are both ultimately also platforms that rely on older and more established media and communications infrastructure: the internet itself, including the servers, routers and undersea data cables that criss-cross the world. And because of that, they can take advantage of the unique benefits bestowed by the distributed architecture created by Leonard Kleinrock, Vint Cerf and the other architects of the ARPANET – ironically, a defence project created to ensure researchers had access to significant national computing resources (and not to create redundancy in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack). The internet, in other words, began life as a communications and data-sharing technology, and the open network architecture of that initial design philosophy continues to affect the way the internet works today.

This week, courtesy of Wikileaks, we learnt a lot more about the sinews of political and financial power that link the modern internet to the security and executive agencies of the contemporary nation-state. The content of these lessons has much to teach us about the state of our democratic societies.

Under sustained pressure from US politicians, several important aspects of Wikileaks’ infrastructure were shut down by the corporations that manage them. First, Amazon shut down Wikileaks’ servers. Then PayPal stopped processing online donations to Wikileaks from supporters.

Interestingly, Wikileaks is not really a “wiki”, in the sense that Wikipedia is: it can’t be collaboratively edited and it is very far from open access.

Nor are its philosophies necessarily original: they are in fact an amalgam of the Enlightenment ideas of Locke, Mill and Paine, and the 1980s and 90s techno-millenarianism of writers such as John Perry Barlow. But in its technological sophistication, its intent and most importantly its impact, Wikileaks is a recognisably new phenomenon. There have been many attempts by internet companies and media organisations to encourage whistleblowers and apply the ideas of scrutiny to monitor governments. But none have had the political impact that Wikileaks has achieved in just a few short years. Wikileaks is new — not because it is on the internet, but because it is making powerful elites in the government and media genuinely uneasy.

Wikileaks is web publisher that relies on clever encryption and distributed servers and publishing platforms. In doing so, it necessarily relies on older and more established media and communications infrastructure: the internet itself, including the servers, routers and undersea data cables that crisscross the world. And because of that, Wikileaks can take advantage of the unique benefits bestowed by the distributed architecture created by Leonard Kleinrock, Vint Cerf and the other architects of the ARPANET — a defence project created to ensure researchers had access to significant national computing resources (and not to create redundancy in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack). The internet, in other words, began life as a communications and data-sharing technology, and the open network architecture of that initial design philosophy continues to affect the way the internet works today.

Wikileaks is certainly more than merely a very clever whistle-blower protection and publication system. While the encryption and other information security aspects of the site are impressive, perhaps more important is that Wikileaks allows disgruntled would-be leakers to turn the power of modern information technology against the nation-states and large corporations that now rely on it.

In an ironic turn that Michel Foucault would surely have applauded, the sheer amount of information now hiding behind government and corporate firewalls makes that information increasingly vulnerable to disclosure. The current cache of Wikileaks cables being released, for instance, have all been distributed on the US government’s SIPRNET, which stands for Secret Internet Router Protocol Network. However, in this context, “secret” is something of a euphemism. As Kevin Rudd himself has pointed out, more than two million US officials have access to SIPRNET. More than 180 US agencies were signed up to SIRPNET by 2005. No wonder much of this content eventually made its way into the public domain. The wonder is that it hasn’t been leaked sooner.

Some of the sharpest thinking about what Wikileaks means has come from the intelligence community itself. US security think-tank Stratfor, for instance, points out that there is a “culture of classfication” rampant inside the US government, in which even relatively mundane documents are classified under Executive Order 13526 as “confidential” or “secret”. Consequently, according to Stratfor’s Scott Sewart, “this culture tends to create so much classified material that stays classified for so long that it becomes very difficult for government employees and security managers to determine what is really sensitive and what truly needs to be protected.”

Information probably doesn’t “want to be free”, as the activist and technologist Stewart Brand famously announced but there are plenty of people who would like it to be. Some of them work in the US military, including Private First Class Bradley Manning.

The content of the Wikileaks releases so far has been devastating, not for what it says, but because it has cut through the lies, disinformation and media spin on which modern democracies increasingly depend. Many citizens will not be surprised by the dark truths that Wikileaks reveals, but they will scarcely be energised to a new optimism about their governments. That US forces violate rules of engagement to gun down innocent civilians, or that the war in Afghanistan is going badly, or that the US State Department actively spies on the UN, or that the Saudis want Iran’s nuclear facilities destroyed: none of these revelations are particularly surprising. But they tear away the veil of deceit behind which politicians and other democratic officials routinely operate in the course of their daily affairs. In the face of truth, deniability is implausible.

Much of what has been written about Wikileaks has missed this fundamental point. It is interesting that Assange himself justifies the cable releases by pointing to the lies of governments to their own people in justifying wars, writing, “there is nothing more wrong than a government lying to its people about [just] wars, then asking these same citizens to put their lives and their taxes on the line for those lies.”

As The Guardian’s John Naughton has pointed out,  there is a delicious irony to the relatively indiscriminate way in which Wikileaks has attacked the sacred cows of the left and the right. It was Wikileaks, remember, that published the hacked emails of UK climate researchers — leaks which commentators and politicians on the right were happy to seize upon as incontrovertible evidence of a giant cover-up in climate science.

Now that Wikileaks has turned the blowtorch on the cherished organs of US national security, those same right wing commentators are calling for punitive action to shut down the organisation.

Many on the left have been equally discomforted, as the confused and savage reaction of many in the Australian Labor Party demonstrates. As Simon Longstaff argued yesterday on The Drum, “it would seem incumbent on those who criticise Wikileaks to renounce the use of leaks in general”.

As with every revolution, Wikileaks has also forced politicians, corporations and officials to make snap decisions about where they stand — and with whom they stand. In the case of USinternet firms like Amazon and PayPal, that decision was to side quickly and decisively with theUS government. Further down in his article, Naughton makes the point that:

the attack of WikiLeaks also ought to be a wake-up call for anyone who has rosy fantasies about whose side cloud computing providers are on … you should not put your faith in cloud computing – one day it will rain on your parade.

 

The other really penetrating account of Wikileaks comes from European media theorists Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens. In “Twelve Theses on Wikileaks”, they make a number of telling observations — including that some of the most uncomfortable Wikileaks revelations involve the rapidly declining potency of the media itself. They write:

The steady decline of investigative journalism caused by diminishing funding is an undeniable fact. Journalism these days amounts to little more than outsourced PR remixing. The continuous acceleration and over-crowding of the so-called attention economy ensures there is no longer enough room for complicated stories. The corporate owners of mass circulation media are increasingly disinclined to see the workings and the politics of the global neoliberal economy discussed at length. The shift from information to infotainment has been embraced by journalists themselves, making it difficult to publish complex stories. WikiLeaks enters this state of affairs as an outsider, enveloped by the steamy ambiance of “citizen journalism”, DIY news reporting in the blogosphere and even faster social media like Twitter.

 

Or, as Assange told the Sydney Morning Herald back in June, “how is it that a team of five people has managed to release to the public more suppressed information, at that level, than the rest of the world press combined? It’s disgraceful.”

Instead, of course, much of the media coverage has concentrated on Julian Assange’s sensational personal conduct, and the sexual assault allegations levelled against him by two Swedish women.

This is a different — although obviously connected — issue. It should be possible to distinguish the Wikileaks website and organisation from the personal conduct of Julian Assange. If allegations presented to the British court by Swedish authorities are true — allegations which have yet to be tested — Assange has committed a crime.

It is frankly disturbing to see many on the left who one would expect to see defending the rights of women, like Naomi Wolf (Naomi Wolf!) make disparaging remarks about the seriousness of these allegation. One of the allegations is for a rape under Swedish law: a non-consensual sex act in which Assange allegedly forced the claimant’s legs open and of ‘”[used] his body weight to hold [her] down in a sexual manner.” The facts of this matter can and should be established in a free and fair judicial process. But as a matter of principle, no should still mean no.

Ultimately, the importance of Wikileaks may be that it is beginning to reveal the contours of a new sort of social contract between citizens and their rulers: a type of relationship that historian and academic John Keane has called “monitory democracy.” For Keane, “monitory democracy is a new historical type of democracy, a variety of‘ ‘post-Westminster’ politics defined by the rapid growth of many different kinds of extra-parliamentary, power-scrutinising mechanisms.”

Monitory democracy, in which non-government and non-media organisations start to exert meaningful and impactful scrutiny of the state and the corporation, holds the promise for a more balanced informational relationship between ordinary citizens and the power elites. But it also implies some disturbing corollaries.

There is a reason conservative commentators are likening Wikileaks to a kind of informational terrorist group: it uses its military-grade encryption tools for the political goal of destabilising governments and states. In this sense, Wikileaks and especially Anonymous, the hacking group suspected of attacking Amazon, Visa and other sites in retaliation for the Wikileaks crackdown, are “non-state actors” — the term given by security and international relations analysts to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.

We aren’t really at the beginning of the first global “information war”, but there is a grain of truth to the claims that the willingness of hackers and cyber-activists to attack web infrastructure represents something new and important. And in this analysis, the flip-side of monitory democracy is informational insurrection.

 

Cultural policy in Victoria

Earlier this year, I was asked by the Arts Industry Council of Victoria to present an overview of the current state of cultural policy in Victoria, in the lead up to the state election. I’ve just tracked down the video of that speech, and here it is below. If you want to see the slideshow, you can link to it here [Victorian cultural policy presentation3].

Big record labels sue gyms and win big

Gyms that play copyrighted music in Australia are up for a big hike in their licensing fees. Image: Chicagonow.com

Today marks another victory in the inexorable legal campaign for more licensing fee revenue by big Australian record labels, led by their industry body, the PPCA.

As Bellinda Kontminas in The Age reports today, the Copyright Tribunal has ruled that gyms must now pay significantly greater royalty fees to labels for the right to play copyrighted music to exercising gym-goers:

The decision, handed down today by the Copyright Tribunal, means that fitness centres will be slugged $15 each class for the use of the music or $1 per attendee of each class.
Gyms had previously been charged 96.8 cents a class, with a cap of $2654 a year.
Fitness Australia said it was “disappointed” with the decision which it said represented a 1500 per cent increase in music costs for an average-size fitness centre.
Chief executive Loretta Stace said it was now reviewing the decision to determine whether there were grounds for appeal.
She said record companies had “shot themselves in the foot” as many fitness centres were already starting to use music that was not subject to PPCA copyright.
Susan Kingsmill, owner of Hiscoes Fitness Centre, said music artists would would now be disadvantaged.
“This decision will lead all fitness centres to seek more affordable music alternatives to the detriment of Australian performing artists, but the artists only have the record companies to blame for this.”

For those of you not aware of the background of this case, it stems from a similar suit brought by the PPCA three years ago against the nightclub industry, in which the big labels similarly won a massive royalty hike. I covered that decision, and the opaque governance structure of the PPCA, in an in-depth article for Arts Hub in 2007.  Representing around 75% of the recorded music industry by sales, the PPCA is effect a legalized cartel (like APRA, it even has a special dispensation from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in order to operate as a monopolistic collection agency).

The decision is something of a win for the big labels, who have run into serious troubles in the past decade owing to high debt loads, falling CD sales, rampant downloading and an industry shift towards touring and merchandise.  It’s also another example of the increasingly skewed nature of copyright law in Australia, which is now titled decisively towards copyright holders, like famous artists and big publishers, and away from rights-users, like libraries, schools and gyms.

Illegal downloading in Australia

A snapshot of illegal downloading in Australia. Source: CoreData/news.com.au

CoreData and news.com.au have teamed up to survey more than 7,000 Australian consumers about their illegal downloading habits.

While we don’t know the full methodology, the survey is one of the largest and certainly the most current snapshot of consumer behaviour in this field.

And, for those of us who have been following the technology-related troubles of the cultural industries since Shawn Fanning invented Napster, the results should not surprise:

Most people who illegally download movies, music and TV shows would pay for them if there was a cheap and legal service as convenient as file-sharing tools like BitTorrent.

[…]

The survey canvassed the attitudes of more than 7000 people who admitted to streaming or downloading media from illegitimate sources in the past 12 months.

It found accessibility was as much or more of a motivator than money for those who illegally download media using services like BitTorrent.

More respondents said they turned to illegal downloads because they were convenient than because they were free, when it came to all three types of media covered by the survey — TV shows, movies and music.

And more than two-thirds said they would pay for downloads from a legitimate service that was just as convenient if it existed.

The hypothetical legitimate service was described as giving users access to TV shows, movies and music they wanted, when they wanted them, without ads or copy protection.

This survey is more evidence, if any more were needed, that the key barrier to a paid content future remains industrial competition and the strategic errors of big cultural businesses, rather than the rampant illegality of ordinary consumers.

Of course, some will protest that consumers are simply lying in such a survey.  But a more convincing explanation is that the cultural industries are yet to give consumers exactly what they want, and that this explains the slow uptake in digital content payments. It’s also another example of the problem of rivalry and excludability in the content industries: compare the prices Australian consumers say they are prepared to pay for downloaded movies (approximately $2 dollars) to the average admission price of a cinema ticket here (as high has $17 for a first-release movie). You don’t need an MBA to see the revenue gap there.

Can studios and record labels make money on prices like these? Of course they can, especially if new business models are created. But that’s not what Big Content will tell you. They’ll use data like this to lobby for more stringent industry protections, in the form of draconian copyright legislation and other anti-competitive regulations.

The evolution of the offside rule in football

Barcelona's Lionel Messi has taken full advantage of the offside rules this season. Image: AP

Regulations matter – whether they be the constraints placed by governments on culture, or the rules by which we play a popular  game.

In The Guardian‘s SportBlog, Jonathan Wilson explains why the modern revisions to the offside law have helped shape the exciting modern style of play seen in the top leagues of Europe.

The first laws of the game drawn up by the Football Association in 1863 stipulated that a player was offside if he was in front of the ball: “When a player has kicked the ball, anyone of the same side who is nearer to the opponent’s goal-line is out of play, and may not touch the ball himself, nor in any way whatever prevent any other player from doing so, until he is in play…” That effectively militated against passing and the assumptions that underlay that culture continued to shape English football for the following decade. English football in those days was all about head-down charging, which is why England were so startled when they encountered the passing approach of Scotland, who had had no such law, in the first international in 1872.

The history sicne then has been one of constant liberalisation of the offside law:

Although the FA’s variant of offside when adopted in 1863 was predicated on a dribbling game, the variants further north – in Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield and Scotland, for instance – where a passing game prevailed, were designed to stop goal-hanging, and prevent the game becoming about endless hoofs into the danger area where a goalkeeper would battle with a handful of forwards who could legitimately stand straight in front of him.

The modern law stops that, but brilliantly it does it without the side-effect of legitimising the offside trap.

There’s plenty more in this thoughtful article.

Shane Homan’s new paper on the Victorian live music protests

I’ve covered the work of Monash University senior lecturer Shane Homan here before, so I was excited when I received an email from John Wardle about a recent new paper from Homan about the Victorian live music rallies.

Entitled “Governmental As Anything: Live Music and Law and Order in Melbourne“, Homan’s new paper is a careful and considered look at the policy background behind the live music venues debate in Australia. As his excellent introduction to the paper obserevs:

Popular music has not historically enjoyed a celebrated place at the policy table of Australian governments. The few strands of popular music policy within Australian arts and cultural infrastructure that have existed have focused on recorded production (small levels of funding assistance for less mainstream recordings) and the protection of those recordings in the local market (radio quotas); or the promotion of Australian recordings overseas (export schemes). Local, live performance circuits, ranging from the large annual festivals and stadium tours to city and suburban bars and clubs, were not considered part of the policy mix for several reasons of history and discourses. Firstly, live, local music performance was not included in the ‘excellence’ criteria determined by successive federal and state governments that funded ‘high art’ musics (opera, classical music, music theatre), where, as Tim Rowse has put it, “funding and a reputation for excellence define[d] each other” (1985: 34). Secondly, governments in turn believed that such an overtly commercial sector of the music industry should exist without assistance, a claim periodically made by the music industry itself, which in the main has detested government interference or subsidy. Thirdly, audience attendance at live performance events has always been strong. And finally, the live music venue has been consistently proclaimed as a successful incubator of jazz, pop, blues and rock acts destined for global success. The Australian pub rock experience in particular has distinguished local product in a global market; the renowned ferocity of bands and ‘punters’ has provided a distinctive regional characteristic to a local industry built upon imported cultural forms.
In contrast, Homan points out that:
… where live music has most often appeared is not in the usual debates about selecting the appropriate cultural forms for subsidy, quotas or funding, but in providing sometimes spectacular moral panics that provoke renewed debate about youth behaviour, the scope of night-time economies and the true place of local performance.

You can read the full paper online. Highly recommended.