Not satisfied with our current Draconian rules, the copyright cartel aims for absolute power
In the surely-you’re-joking category, here comes the music industry to say it needs even tougher copyright rules. Sorry, no joke.
As CNET’s Declan McCullagh reports from a conference in Aspen, Colo., Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, complained about “loopholes” in the current copyright system. But what he calls loopholes are among the few parts of the law that remotely temper the absolute control that the RIAA and its allies, mainly in the movie business, want copyright holders to have over everything digital.
Specifically, the entertainment industry is looking to enforce copyright by getting third parties to do some of the dirty work. In particular, the industry wants companies such as search engines and Internet service providers — the latter is typically your phone or cable company — to keep an eagle eye on what you do with your own computer, inspecting what you download and upload in granular ways. This is the rough equivalent of getting your phone company to listen to your calls to make sure you aren’t planning anything illegal.
The way the entertainment companies are trying to make this kind of thing work in other countries is to get ISPs to shut down users’ access after accusations of infringing behavior, with harder punishments also a possibility. A legal battle royal is under way in France and the European Union over this insane policy.
What the cartel wants, essentially, is to make all the decisions about how what it produces may be used in any way. This flies in the face of tradition and law, and would inevitably lead to a regime under which we would all need permission to use digital content for any purpose whatsoever.
As Internet access consolidates into the hands of a few companies, these threats become more serious, not so much because the ISPs want to be spying on you but rather because they may be forced to do so. Let your ISP know you won’t be happy if this happens.
Google’s Android “App Inventor” tries to bring mobile programming to the masses
Back in the 1980s, Apple Computer (as it was known then) released a product called Hypercard. It was an easy-to-use programming tool, based on a simple and elegant programming language called HyperTalk, combining databases and a graphical display to create applications called “stacks.” Programmers and non-programmers alike flocked to it, and created a huge variety of stacks that ranged from useful to quirky.
In the 1990s, Microsoft released Visual Basic. It, too, greatly simplified the programming process and was adopted by vast numbers of people — many inside large enterprises — whose work reinforced the Windows monopoly.
In the past decade, Web development took on some of the same qualities, giving average people ways to create applications to run on the Web with great ease and simplicity. Blogger, WordPress and Drupal, among others, became the content-management systems of choice, for example, and Yahoo’s brilliant Pipes let people do sophisticated mashups without knowing a line of Java or other popular languages.
Now comes a tool from Google that is getting quick buzz. It seems more in the Hypercard/Blogger genre than Visual Basic, which was made for beginners but did take some skill, but nonetheless a possible breakthrough. This one, built for the mobile age, is called the AndroidApp Inventor. I haven’t been able to try it yet, but its description suggests great potential. Google says:
You can build just about any app you can imagine with App Inventor. Often people begin by building games like WhackAMoleor games that let you draw funny pictures on your friend’s faces. You can even make use of the phone’s sensors to move a ball through a maze based on tilting the phone.
But app building is not limited to simple games. You can also build apps that inform and educate. You can create a quiz app to help you and your classmates study for a test. With Android’s text-to-speech capabilities, you can even have the phone ask the questions aloud.
To use App Inventor, you do not need to be a developer. App Inventor requires NO programming knowledge. This is because instead of writing code, you visually design the way the app looks and use blocks to specify the app’s behavior.
Based on the work of a number of people including Hal Abelson at MIT — a brilliant computer scientist who also understands how app development need to get into wider distribution, not just the coder community — the open-source environment leverages of other educational software projects.
One of the most important elements of App Inventor is that it will let developers take full advantage of the mobile hardware. Part of what makes mobility so interesting is that sensors built into devices — compasses, GPS radios, accelerometers, for example — add capabilities that were unavailable in the PC era. To be able to leverage those in a dead-simple way is just huge.
I don’t want to overstate the potential here. Google’s not alone in working on such things, no doubt. But from what I can see this is going to be a seriously big deal if it works as advertised.
And I’ll be shocked if Apple doesn’t do something equivalent for its iPhone ecosystem. (It will have to be Apple, because the company forbids app developers to use any tools but its own — one of the most arrogant yet ultimately foolish moves Apple has made to date.) (See the update below for some high irony.)
The downside, if there is one: The number of Android apps is about to explode. This is a giant opportunity for Google — or anyone else, for that matter — to offer better curation than the current Market via various marketplaces and recommendation systems, as well as simple aggregation. Help the users. Don’t control them.
I’m going to start working on an app for the journalism marketplace, a project I’ve wanted to do but couldn’t get going with because of the cost. From what I can tell, I’ll be able to do most of what I need with this tool, maybe not everything but enough to get going and then iterate later.
UPDATE: One of the building blocks for App Inventor happens to beScratch, a programming language aimed at kids and developed at MIT. One guess what happened when the developers of Scratch submitted a version they’d created for the iPhone platform to the Apple App Store: Yep, Apple rejected it.
(Note: Google has supplied some of its early Android phones, the G1 model, to my university for experiments. Many other companies, including Google rivals Apple and Microsoft, have supplied gear and/or software, and offer discounts to university students, faculty and staff. I purchased (at list price) the Google Nexus One phone that is my main mobile device.)
Search giant gives Beijing half a loaf, but will regime be satisfied?
Clever dodge or capitulation? Google’s latest move in its ongoing battles with China looks like a bit of both.
When Google closed its search operations in China last March rather than obey government censorship edicts, the search company tried somecorporate judo: It redirected searches from Chinese customers to servers in Hong Kong, thereby providing more honest results than the ones it replaced.
Too clever by half, the Beijing regime decided — and it ordered Google to stop its tactic or lose its ability to do pretty much any business in the world’s most populous nation. Disappointingly but not surprisingly, Google has done just that.
But in what is clearly a concession to the latest Bejing must-censor edicts, Google offered half a loaf to China search users and a half-raised middle finger to Beijing: They can still get the mostly uncensored Hong Kong results, but now they have to do so via hyperlinks rather than automatically. David Drummond, Google’s top lawyer, explained it this way on the company’s blog:
We have therefore been looking at possible alternatives, and instead of automatically redirecting all our users, we have started taking a small percentage of them to a landing page on Google.cnthat links to Google.com.hk—where users can conduct web search or continue to use Google.cn services like music and text translate, which we can provide locally without filtering. This approach ensures we stay true to our commitment not to censor our results on Google.cn and gives users access to all of our services from one page.
But how long will this last? China is nothing if not peristent on its censorship, and it’s hard to imagine that the Beijing censors will sit still for what they’re likely to see as further insult.
Eventually, one guesses, Google will have to make the most serious decision of all: whether to shut down China operations entirely or keep making concessions. Will its fiduciary duty to shareholders outweigh moral concerns? Right, silly question.
Soccer czars’ ban of in-stadium video replays only postpones reality
The czars of football (or soccer, as we call it in the U.S.), stung repeatedly by poor officiating in the World Cup tournament in South Africa, have come up with a way to mute protests inside the stadiums: pretend the mistakes aren’t happening by blocking any in-stadium video replays.
FIFA will censor World Cup match action being shown on giant screens inside the stadium after replays of Argentina’s disputed first goal against Mexico fueled arguments on the pitch.
The proximate event was a goal scored by a player who was offside before he took his shot. A spokesman for FIFA (the governing body of international football), Nicolas Maingot, regretted the “clear mistake.”
What mistake? Why, the video replay, not the actual officiating flub.
Yep, that’ll work. Actually it will, for now, if the majority of people inside the stadium are kept in the dark (assuming they missed the rules violation in the first place), which is the point of this exercise. Meanwhile, in living rooms and bars around the world, everyone else will have a close-up view of the officiating mistakes.
It’s not as if FIFA is alone in making this kind of decision. Salon colleague King Kaufman, who forgets more about professional sports every week than I’ve ever learned, tells me it’s fairly standard practice not to show big-screen replays of close calls in major U.S. professional and collegiate (OK, same thing) sports. No doubt Major League Baseball, which has its own prominent cases of staggeringly bad calls, is watching all this with interest.
But let’s consider where technology is heading to understand why the giant screens inside the stadiums aren’t going to remain the only issue.
Even today, it’s likely that some spectators could have seen the offside video almost immediately on video-equipped mobile phones. By the time the next World Cup rolls around, that will be most of the people inside the stadium. Will FIFA block mobile video access to ensure that official bumbles remain unseen by the people actually attending the events?
I’m sympathetic to FIFA in one respect. Soccer is a game of flow; it would change dramatically if officials repeatedly stopped the matches to review video footage — though correcting egregiously wrong calls on whether a goal had been scored would be an obvious place where it would make sense, as opposed to a missed offside, which happens all the time. But to pretend that the videos don’t exist isn’t going to work much longer.
Eroding newspaper business models represent markets that are working, not just failing
More than one speaker at today’s Federal Trade Commission workshop on the future of journalism has used the expression “market failure” to describe the eroding business model of local newspapers. Perhaps they’ve picked up on the FTC’s Federal Register Notice describing the purpose for this months-long initiative, in which economists say that “public affairs reporting may indeed be particularly subject to market failure.”
There’s some truth in this, even though it’s far too early to assume that current trends will lead over the long term to less trustworthy information in the public affairs realm. (I believe the opposite, but the jury’s definitely out on this.) Framing the issue this way also buys into the mythology that we had a Golden Age of Journalism with ample public affairs reporting; even the biggest daily newspapers rarely covered governments outside several core jurisdictions in their markets.
For the privileged few journalists who lived in that era’s once-warm embrace, and especially for their employers, professional life was almost perfect — because that was an era of fabulously profitable monopolies and oligopolies. The public affairs journalism was real, and sometimes brilliant work that made a huge difference in local and national affairs. But relatively speaking to the available financial resources, it was a typically a modest spinoff of near-absolute market power the journalism companies boasted in the communities they claimed to (and sometimes did) serve.
But there’s another way to look at the media marketplace of those days. And from several other perspectives it’s safe to say that current trends amount to the overdue correction: that the pined-after Golden Age was in key ways itself the era of market failure.
If you were a local business that wanted broad reach into the community, you essentially had to pay the extortionate and always-rising display advertisement prices newspapers charged or the equally extortionate broadcast rates local TV affiliates could command. If you were an individual trying to sell a car or household item or rent out a spare room, you paid absurdly high prices for classified ads.
If your neighborhood or community or issue didn’t interest the newspaper, it might as well have been banned from the community agenda. And if you had something to say, and wanted the community to hear or read it, your options were to pray you could get a letter to the editor published, or an even-rarer Op-Ed piece, or put out fliers around town. If you tried starting a competing newspaper, you’d often find yourself at the untender mercies of Big Media companies that would squash you like a bug. Forget about starting a competing TV or radio station; the local frequencies were owned by people who never lost their licenses no matter what they did.
That was market failure, too. For everyone but the monopolists and oligopolists, the market was grossly inefficient and nearly impossible to change.
Impossible, that is, until the barriers to entry dropped. In print, desktop publishing was the first crack in the dam, but it didn’t fully open the market. That only happened when the Internet came along — when eBay and Craigslist and Monster and Google and a host of other nimble companies created Internet advertising alternatives that monopolists couldn’t begin to match; and when a zillion content-based start-ups started finding better ways to tell people the things they needed or wanted to know.
The FTC is the principal federal government agency charged with promoting competition in American commerce. I don’t recall that it paid much attention to the inefficient, uncompetitive markets we had during the dominant days of newspaper monopolies and cozy, government-protected broadcasting.
So why, when the market finally opens up to competition at a variety of levels, is it suddenly time to fret so urgently about a market failure in journalism?
As I said yesterday, I’d like to see the nation invest in powerful, open broadband infrastructure for every home and business in America — to give our 21st century communications and commerce a leg up in world competition. Even if that doesn’t happen, but assuming the telecom duopoly doesn’t get to decide in a granular way what we can do online, the explosion of creation and innovation should tell us that we’re far too early to pronounce the death of journalism.
It could all go wrong. But at the moment, it seems to me, these markets are starting to look more like successes than failures.
With an open, robust data infrastructure, entrepreneurs will take care of the rest
In 1791, James Madison penned a short essay that foretold a long, and ongoing, financial involvement by government in journalism. Madison said, in part:
Whatever facilitates a general intercourse of sentiments, as good roads, domestic commerce, a free press, and particularly a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people, and Representatives going from, and returning among every part of them, is equivalent to a contraction of territorial limits, and is favorable to liberty, where these may be too extensive.
The following year, partly in response to Madison’s advice, Congress passed the Post Office Act of 1792. One of its key provisions — in what, looking back, was a pivotal development of a robust and free press in America — let newspaper publishers mail papers for extremely low prices. It was an outright subsidy, for a social purpose.
The goal wasn’t to give newspaper owners a special deal because they were nice people (many were not) or would support government positions (many did not). It was to help ensure that knowledge and commerce would spread as quickly, and as widely, as possible. The First Amendment generally forbade interference in what people could publish; the Post Office law provision helped make it financially feasible to ensure that other people could receive and read what was published.
By all historical accounts, the 1792 law worked. It was central to the rise of the nation as a society based on knowledge.
More than two centuries later, portions of the American journalism business — newspapers, in particular — have fallen on hard times that may, in many cases, be terminal. And we’re hearing a chorus of calls for a taxpayer bailout of the industry, on the grounds that their journalism plays such a vital role in society that taxpayers should subsidize it directly.
Some of most ardent pleas to that effect have come in front of the Federal Trade Commission, which embarked late last year on a series of workshops/hearings on journalism’s future. In the way it’s framed the issue — “How Will Journalism Survive the Internet Age?” — and the selection of people who’ve appeared, the FTC has given too much attention to the fearful interventionists, and an insufficient hearing to optimists who’d like to give markets more of a chance. A staff “discussion draft” of earlier workshops has drawn fierce criticism from Jeff Jarvis and others, reasonably in my view, for offering the briefest of nods in the direction of genuine innovation amid much heavy breathing about proposals to comfort dinosaurs.
Count me among the optimists who a) prefer to let markets go further along their disruptive path; but b) do so in the context of government intervention that would promote broader economic and social progress. So when I appear as a panelist tomorrow, I’ll offer two related messages:
First, direct subsidies for journalism are the wrong way to go, even dangerous. But we absolutely could use the kind of indirect help — taxpayer-funded deployment of high-capacity, wide-open broadband networks — that would be an analogue to the early American postal subsidies, and then some. This would be essential infrastructure, aimed at beefing up all 21st Century commerce and communications, including but not limited to journalism.
Second, if we got serious about broadband in this way, entrepreneurs would almost certainly come up with the journalism, including a variety of business models to augment or replace today’s, that would provide the public good we all agree comes with journalism and other trustworthy information.
To be fair, some of the subsidy advocates say they don’t want to prop up newspapers per se, though some of their remedies would do just that; others are less shy, and their explicit goal is to save newspapers.
I love newspapers. I worked in them for almost 25 years. But I’m not itching to bail out a business that is failing in large part because it was so transcendentally greedy in its monopoly era that it passed on every opportunity to survive against real financial competition. With a few exceptions, the newspaper industry essentially deserves to die at this point.
The broadband build-out that I and some others advocate would actually reduce government involvement in the journalism business if we did it right. Indeed, government influence, beyond the postal subsidies, has been a common thread in our history.
That’s inevitable in some ways. Governments play major roles in the success or failure of all kinds of enterprises. How corporations and not-for-profits do business, and which ones pay which taxes, are decided by lawmakers.
Journalism organizations have enjoyed their share of special treatment. Intervening via the mail, as noted above, was the linchpin. A few decades after the Post Office Act of 1792, Alexis De Tocqueville traveled around the states to research his pathbreaking volumes onDemocracy in America. He observed how widely knowledge had spread in a largely rural nation. The essential instrument of this, he explained: “The post, that great instrument of intellectual intercourse, now reaches into the backwoods.”
By the mid-1800s, says Bruce Bimber in his book, Information and American Democracy , our postal system became the most dependable and comprehensive in the world. It was an unprecedented exercise in governmental assistance, Bimber argues — “a kind of Manhattan project of communication” that helped fuel the rise of the first truly mass medium.
The key word in that Bimber quote is “communication.” Communications have always helped fuel commerce, learning and a variety of social interactions, well beyond the things we call journalism.
But support for media (and not just what now seems like traditional journalism) has been a long-running reality, not least because news proprietors had plenty to say about who got elected and re-elected. Even in the 20th Century, favorable mail rates helped countless magazines and newsletters stay solvent. Some did a lot better than that; the rise of the Time Inc. magazine empire was aided immeasurably by the fact that it could mail its publications at a cost to the publisher that barely began to cover the actual cost to the system. (In the 21st Century, Time’smaneuvering to ensure its own favorable rates, at the expense of publishers of smaller journals, made some economic sense but also had a odiously anticompetitive aspect.)
Newspapers have enjoyed other special federal and local advantages, meanwhile. One of the most flagrant special-interest favors in U.S. history has to be the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970, in which newspaper publishers persuaded Congress and the Nixon administration to give the industry an exemption from antitrust laws. I spent more than a decade at a company that was helped by this law, so call me, too, a recipient of government largesse.
The gifts aren’t just federal. In many states, newspapers get special tax treatment, notably exemption from sales taxes. Last year, for example, the state of Washington cut newspapers’ main business taxes by 40 percent (to the same rate enjoyed by Boeing and timber companies, the state’s most powerful industries). As the University of Southern California’s Geoffrey Cowan and David Westphal observed late last year: ” Federal and state governments forego about $890 million a year on income and sales tax breaks to the newspaper industry, most of it at the state level. The actual figure is probably much higher because many states don’t report tax expenditure details.” Moreover, they wrote, public notices have been a huge revenue boost over the decades for newspapers, not to mention smaller favors like the placement of newspaper vending machines and boxes on public streets.
Print publications haven’t been the only beneficiaries of government favors. The gifts to the newspaper and magazine businesses are dwarfed in recent times by what broadcasters carved away from the taxpayers: namely free use of the public’s airwaves. Local TV broadcasters, in particular, took advantage of this windfall, worth hundreds of billions of dollars over the decades, to make money at a rate that made even newspaper shareholders envious. The unenforced “public service” requirement for all broadcasters has led to local TV “news” becoming a cesspool of violence, celebrity gossip and trivia that would have to improve to be mediocre; local newspapers are only now becoming as lousy as local TV news has been through its entire history.
So even though I personally find the direct-subsidy idea abhorrent for all kinds of reasons, I have to recognize that we’ve done a lot of it in the past. But poor policies don’t have to be the rule, do they?
The Federal Trade Commission’s most significant mandate is to promote competition. Strictly speaking, we might speculate that the 1792 Post Office Act and monopolization of first-class mail deterred competition from other entities in the postal-delivery market. There was a vital public value in what we did, however, and its outcome reminds us of a more recent federal endeavor with high relevance to our broadband data future: the Interstate highway system.
In the 1950s, America’s state and local highways were relatively well developed. What the nation decided it needed, and what corporate America couldn’t begin to provide, was a robust system of long-distance roads.
With data, the reverse is true: the long-distance data highways, the “backbone” networks, exist in abundance. What we really need now is better local conveyances, the ones running to and into our homes. Big telecom carriers say they’ll provide these connections — that is, theymay provide these connections if they feel like it — only if we allow them to control the content that flows on those lines.
Imagine if we’d given the interstates to corporations that could decide what kinds of vehicular traffic could use them. If you want to worry about a threat to the journalism of tomorrow, consider the power being collected by the so-called “broadband” providers right now.
If we’re going to spend taxpayers’ money in ways that could help journalism, let’s make that benefit a byproduct of something much more valuable. Let’s build out our data networks the right way, by installing fiber everywhere we can possibly put it. Then, let private and public enterprises light it up.
And at that point, we can step back and allow real competition to reign, not the phony facsimile that passes for broadband in American today, a broadband future that the carriers have loudly proclaimed their intention to control at every level. I’m not minimizing the difficulty of making this work; what I’m describing would come with many complications. But this is worth doing, because we simply can’t trust our future to the cable-phone duopoly or the relatively weak competition we’ve seen from wireless providers.
The FTC can’t do much on its own about making sure broadband works the right way. That’s partly the Federal Communication Commission’s job. But it’s really the job of Congress, which keeps failing so spectacularly at almost everything else it touches these days.
But the FTC can offer policy recommendations, and sometimes Congress actually listens. So I hope the commission will push for the kind of progress the nation’s founders had the wisdom to see. Let’s create the conditions that help ensure a market of ideas and business models, based on one of the principle America stood on in its early days: widespread contributions and access to knowledge, as a foundation of the future.
As expected, Google TV was announced at this morning’s I/O keynote (here’s the video site). There’s so much to think about in this initiative. One strikes me as especially intriguing: This is a big boost for micro-niche video.
Clearly, a ton of development has gone into the overall notion. Some of the platform pieces are quite clever, including basing it on Android, the open-source operating system that is now running dozens of phones and other small devices. And what Google brings to the ecosystem in other ways will be a powerful incentive for many other participants.
Google seems to be focusing mostly on the value it sees in combining Hollywood with Google. Semi-ugh. To the extent that Google gets in bed with the copyright cartel, it becomes a partner to an industry that wants to impede progress, not make it.
So when Eric Schmidt was joined on stage by Sony CEO Howard Stringer at I/O, and when “content providers” like the NBA showed off what they want to do with this new system, I mostly shuddered at the prospect of DRM-laden crapola invading my life in new, annoying and ultimately dangerous ways. (DRM stands for “digital rights management,” but really means “digital restrictions management.”)
What I prefer to focus on, however, is another of the ecosystem’s more intriguing (for me) possibilities: microchannels of content that will be simple to create and watch — and much easier than in the past to monetize.
Micro-niche video has been around for a long time now. I can remember back in the late 1990s when sites like the now-defunct Pseudo offered a variety of narrowly tailored programming, and how much I relished the idea of combining the then-new DVR with the Internet and my personal tastes.
What Google is doing now is putting together a jigsaw puzzle that, if I understand what’s happening, could be one of the breakthroughs we’ve been waiting for. Here are the key pieces:
First, this is a serious and useful linking of the Web and TV. Google is working to create a reasonably seamless experience where we can use both to their best effect, with integrated search and more. It’s not the first thing of its kind, but it does seem to stretch the genre.
Second, Google brings with it an advertising marketplace. I can’t overstate how important this is. Niche content will have an instant way to find not just an audience but the advertising to help support it. (Now I see how Google really plans to make YouTube pay for itself, and then some.) The more niche the topic, the more the ads can be considered useful content as opposed to irrelevant annoyances.
Third, niches are sociable experiences if we want them to be. We love to talk about what we really know, or care about, with others who feel the same way.
The possibilities are almost infinite. I’d tune in to the Alpine Skiing Channel or the Acoustic Folk Music from the 1960s Channel or Civil War Channel or My Hometown Neighborhood Channel if they existed. And I’d participate in a social media conversation inside of them.
What could go wrong? Lots of things. Not least of those is a victory by the telecommunications carriers in their fight against what folks call network neutrality, the idea that we users of the Internet should decide what we want to see and do, rather than having the carriers decide what bits of information we get, if we get them.
Even worse with the wireless piece: Building great stuff into an operating system doesn’t guarantee you can use it if the carriers decide to limit your bandwidth, or any number of other control-freakish stuff they may try (in fairness, sometimes, to keep the networks running for people who want to, um, make phone calls or send low-bandwidth text messages).
But let’s focus on the potential: TV may be about to get a lot more interesting…
The FCC has decided that Hollywood’s copyright cartel will soon be able to control your television — and ultimately much more — remotely. This is not a joke.
The FCC order “‘will allow the big firms for the first time to take control of a consumer’s TV set or set-top box, blocking viewing of a TV program or motion picture,” Gigi Sohn, president of Washington-based Public Knowledge, said in a statement.
I’m old enough to remember the introduction to a long-ago TV show called the Outer Limits. Science fiction often comes true.
UPDATE: Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing, who has much more technical depth on these issues, explains clearly what’s going on — and how this is about much more than just your TV. It’s about all electronics you use. Thought you owned that new PC or Mac? Think again.
David Carr, media columnist for the New York Times, took critical note this week of arrogant behavior at Apple. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the myopia that pervades his organization about its own dealings with Apple, he missed a crucial part of the story.
Carr, whom I like and respect enormously, gets so much right. He connects some dots that his and other news organizations, particularly Wired, had been creating in their journalism — and not just about the outrageous invasion of a journalist’s home, plus the confiscation of his computing gear, to further an almost certainly Apple-inspired investigation. This, you’ll recall, occurred after an employee lost an iPhone prototype, which was then purchased by Gawker in the process of doing a much talked-about article.
(Whether Gawker Media was right or wrong to pay for the device isn’t the topic here; I don’t have to like the way they did their journalism to vehemently object to the abuses by the authorities, who should have gotten a subpoena instead of a search warrant; their actions were an attack on journalism, a flagrant one.)
The dots Carr connects amount to what anyone who’s paid attention to Apple has known for years: Apple makes great gadgets and software, but it is secretive, manipulative and capricious in the way it deals with everyone outside its high walls — and it plainly aims to exert absolute control over what it aims to make the world’s next major computing and communications platform.
Communications means media. Carr notices, at one point, that Apple is becoming a media company as he cites Apple’s dictatorial handling of the ecosystem that uses the iPhone operating system, which controls the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad.
Carr can’t find a pattern in the way Apple decides which content-based apps get approved and rejected. I can: It’s a pattern of a single company making all the decisions. Carr does say it makes him “queasy” and notes that it’s part of a closed-ecosystem method Apple has chosen for its newer devices. He writes:
Apple’s behavior and choices in the Gizmodo affair threaten to interrupt the séance between the company and an adoring press, who have looked past all the frantic secrecy and reverently stared in wonder at what was eventually revealed behind the curtain.
The media’s crush on Apple has always been an unrequited love affair. The company has a few familiars in the press whom it favors, but Apple has “no comment” programmed on a macro key. The company has unsuccessfully sued bloggers who, it believed, had punctured its veil of secrecy, and important tech news organizations like Wired have been shut out as a result of coverage deemed ill-mannered.
When I read that, I thought, Aha, now he’s going to address his own organization’s flagrant questions of integrity involving Apple — and look at an issue I and a number of others have raised about Apple and journalism. Namely: Why are news organizations, creating iPad apps at a rapid rate, throwing themselves into the arms of a company that unilaterally reserves the right to reject or remove the journalism from its platform if it doesn’t like what it sees.
Surely this would be worth raising an eyebrow? You won’t find a word in Carr’s column even wondering if journalism organizations are violating basic principles this way.
The questions are (or should be) more pointed in the specific case of the Times and its dealings with Apple. Their relationship looks so close on the surface that it gives the appearance of a cross-promotional campaign for each others’ products. Might it have been useful for Carr to ask his own bosses to address any of this? When I asked, they stonewalled until issuing a “no comment” to my specific questions. This was curious: Last summer, when Apple was similarly promoting the Times in its pre-release campaign for an iPhone model, a Times spokesperson specifically denied to the Nieman Journalism Lab that there was any business relationship, saying Apple had asked for permission, happily granted, to feature the news organization in its promotion. In that context, a “no comment” is at least an interesting shift in position. Maybe Carr could have asked if something had changed?
That’s a rhetorical question, of course, just like the other ones I’m asking about how far Carr’s column took these issues. I don’t really expect him to push his bosses as hard as I’m suggesting he might. He’s an employee, and employees of news organizations — institutions whose arrogance matches that of Wall Street banks — know just how far they can go, which isn’t very far, in asking of themselves that which they demand of others.
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