May 18, 2009

To Pay or Not To Pay: The Internet’s Most Intricate Crisis

Posted in Business & technology tagged , , , , , , , at 10:24 am by M L Clark

Within two months after Last.fm, a music streaming service, signed into partnership with four major record labels, Amazon.com saw a 119 percent increase in online music sales. Through an ad-based revenue model Last.fm was able to offer free access to a database of songs numbering in the millions, and to group them into “stations” wherein your tastes would yield similar artists or songs in that vein. The catch was that after three iterations of one song, Last.fm would display an advertisement directing listeners to affiliate partners selling the tune. All in all, it was a sweet deal: We got free music, the big labels got paid, the small labels got exposure, and contrary to popular wisdom about downloaders detracting from music profits, online sales were through the roof.

So, of course, Last.fm switched to a subscription model on April 22, 2009: Now International Users have to pay “three” every month — three euros, three dollars: whatever is regionally appropriate. And honestly? This makes tremendous business sense: Last.fm has to pay for every track you listen to from a major label, and when it can’t negotiate adequate terms for payment with a label, sometimes that label just cuts out.

Nonetheless, as part of the Napster generation I can’t help but note how, the more things change online, the more they’ve ultimately stayed the same. From Napster to Pandora to Muxtape to Seeqpod and, of course, a slew of others, the introduction of free big-label music under any number of guises has always, invariably ended in a curtailing of services (at best), or else a complete redirection of the site’s aims and/or bankruptcy.

Notice anything funny there? Take a look at how this cycle begins: With the desire to give something away for free. Not to make a profit on it; just to scrape by — and only when profit margins drop deep into the red, to impose fees on the consumers. Yeah, you might say, it’s easy not to try to make money on something you didn’t create (the music). But… if history serves us well, it’s not. People just don’t pass up the opportunity to exploit the work of others for their own profit. So how is it that models like the ones listed above ever existed in the first place?

The answer perhaps lies in our generation’s unique conditioning: if as individuals we still demanded that our own creative output be viewable solely through a pay system (as Amazon is proposing in blog subscriptions for Kindle), we’d be hypocrites to demand free content from others. But growth on the internet has proven instead too nuanced for such hypocrisy: while some services have always tried to charge for content, the blogosphere, YouTube, GoogleVideo, MySpace, DeviantArt, Flickr, news aggregates, and other such websites have always run on a free viewing model. In short, by now we’re more than used to posting a piece of writing, a photo, a video, or a song online and expecting nothing monetary from it. Art and entertainment have entered into a free-for-all creation domain, and while this doesn’t mean we don’t still hold in high regard those artists and entertainers who dedicate the whole of their lives to such work, it certainly means we have different expectations for our engagement with them.

As such, the story of those aforementioned music services means just what seems to mean: That our first push out into the world of the internet is just as likely to be in the pursuit of free access as it is to be about exploitation — and thus, that we as consumers can forever expect to find ourselves latching on to free content, taking it for granted, and having subsequent power plays or business models then wrest that freedom away. A cry of foul will emerge, we’ll flood a comments page with angry protests… and then most of us will clear off, find a new free music service, and repeat.

Rest assured, this isn’t as hard to stomach as it sounds: we’re already quite used to learning to pay for goods we’d always taken for granted — how else can you explain bottled tap water? But the story of free music is a fast-paced tale that also speaks volumes about deeper, more complex payment issues at work on the internet.

Because while the struggle for survival of music streaming services cater to our more immediate fears about The Man, there is a longer, more drawn-out battle being waged in turn for the whole of the internet. Yes, I’m talking about the attempts of Internet Service Providers to make heavy internet users pay more, or divest the whole medium of its equal playing field by allowing some companies to pay for prioritized access, effectively shutting small companies and websites out of the mass market. Or what about Bell Canada, which last year found an ally in the CRTC when the Canadian Association of Internet Providers complained that Bell was “throttling” access for peer-to-peer applications — a direct challenge to net neutrality? When the CRTC sided with Bell in the case, they likewise permitted, and set precedent for, the legality of an ISP interfering with an individual’s use of the service he’s paid for, through “traffic-shaping.”

And then, of course, there is the anti-piracy bill passed by the French National Assembly on May 12, 2009: anyone caught downloading or sharing copyrighted files three times can now be suspended from the internet for two months to a year on that third notice. Chillingly, the law would not require a trial or court order: All the ISPs need do is send you your warnings, making this a huge win for corporate control of the medium.

This, then, is the real conflict of the internet — an on-going negotiation being fought in a much more protracted, expansive way than any music streaming service need fear: but a negotiation, nonetheless, that will shape the future of the internet for us and those to come.

For now we take our freedoms and equality online for granted — just as we do our free music moment by moment. The question is, if the lesson of music streaming services has taught us anything, what can we really say about how free or equal the internet as a whole will be just ten years down the line?

And what, right now, can we do about it?

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March 14, 2009

Why Aren’t We Standing Up To Ad Hominem Attacks?

Posted in Public discourse tagged , , , , at 11:42 am by M L Clark

In the wake of the Jon Stewart / Jim Cramer controversy, which I feel was not so much overly hyped as, in its polemic framework, erroneously hyped, a striking point remains unmade: Where was the condemnation of mainstream ad hominem attacks?

Specifically, Joe Scarborough of Morning Joe, by launching a heated attack on Stewart on his show, provides a good example of the kind of argument held by Stewart’s critics all throughout the week of this controversy: Many called him on being a comedian, and condemn him for having critical opinions in this capacity about the statements of others.

People have responded to this condemnation, yes. They have done so by arguing Stewart isn’t just a comedian, noting his strong history of media criticism and notable appeals to journalistic ethics. Not one person in the mainstream media has said, however, “Even if he were just a comedian, would that make his criticism any less valid?”

And that’s a problem. It’s a problem because while many fallacies are very difficult to police (being of the subtler variety), ad hominem attacks are pretty straightforward. Moreover, the ad hominem fallacy in this case is an attack on freedom of speech (in the U.S.) and freedom of expression (in Canada), because by its very nature it implies some people’s arguments are less valid simply because of who is making them, and yet it’s made by people in positions of power — people who, as members of the media, should be empowering everyone to hold them accountable for failure.

So while Scarborough was attacking Stewart for daring to make a critique of CNBC while simultaneously being an entertainer, he (and others like him, in print as well as on TV) was also encouraging the unquestioned use of this fallacy. And that’s dangerous, because Scarborough has privileged access to both the airwaves (which gives him access to millions) and, from his association with notable news organization, a measure of legitimacy (which gives him an edge over pundit bloggers). He is part of a system which sets a standard for casual, daily discourse in North America — and he, like many of the people in these roles — is failing to promote fair, reasoned, empowering conversation in this realm.

The ways in which print, TV, and online articles have used this fallacy are often indirect: Headlines reading “the clown won” after the Stewart/Cramer conversation on The Daily Show are as damaging to the cause of coherent, empowering media discourse as any direct, unchecked statement of “What right does a comedian have to criticize?” could ever be.

And that’s where things get confusing: Why on earth are these statements going unchecked? Where is the dominant culture of critical analysis that curtails, both institutionally and on a case-by-case basis, statements that feed into this “dis-empowerment” of individual viewers?

There was a time when we had few on-air personalities: now we have an excess of them, and the depressing catch-22 is that if the bulk of these personalities don’t regularly remind their viewers about formal argumentative structures, fair comment, and journalistic ethics (which they don’t), said viewers will come to view the kind of argument that exists instead as the right one — fallacies and all. And why should these on-air personalities do otherwise? They were hired because their companies know that entertainment sells, but don’t grasp why Jon Stewart is so successful providing both entertainment and analysis; so these companies treat their forms of entertainment with all the gravitas of serious journalism, even when they’re not. And if a comedian — someone who readily acknowledges that he’s doing entertainment, but maintains a core sense of journalistic right and wrong distinct from his role as entertainer — calls them on it? Well, they’ve got ample public access where they can condemn him for speaking in the first place, instead of addressing his comments, to their hearts’ content. And no one will call them on it, because they’re the ones setting the discourse in the first place, and the discourse they’ve set is of refusing the legitimacy of a comment on the basis of the person who makes it.

… Except that there are people who do ostensibly toil for the protection of U.S. citizens in relation to media abuses. The FCC is vigilant about calling out “public indecency” as it (or rather, the loudest of the interest groups that pressures the FCC) perceives these instances to be. And so we see justice meted out swiftly when a woman’s nipple is shown on national prime-time television, or a children’s cartoon has a character with two moms, or an expletive is used in the wrong time-slot. In all these ways, the general public is kept safe from the excesses of media.

But the unchecked use of fallacies that, by implication, strip an awareness of power from viewers by pushing the essence of American discourse away from what was said, to who said it, and encouraging others to do the same? These are let stand.

I’m not saying the FCC should fine people for unsatiric use of ad hominem fallacy. I’m just saying, Christ, wouldn’t it be great if someone in a position of media authority at least condemned it?