Google, Viacom: Gatekeepers Old and New?
Two months ago I read a text by some friends from Ippolita in Italy titled “The Dark Side of Google”. Therein they construct a dystopian picture of the emerging power of the ubiquitous search engine, but I finished reading with the sense that the picture painted lacked perspective. The bone I had to pick with them was that focussing almost exclusively on the privacy implications of data mining obscured the role played by the company in changing the calculus on the field of copyright conflicts.
The Old Gatekeepers: the Mass Media Model
In the age of mass media the obstacle to having a wide audience was straightforward. To broadcast one’ message required high cost machinery and expensive licenses. In the former category we have the daily newspapers with their huge printing presses and complicated logistical infrastructure, terrestrial television with its broadcast towers, radio stations with powerful transmitters, satellite operators, and cable providers with their expensive plumbing through the ground to every house. if you wanted to get your message out, you had to make a deal with them and satisfy their regulatory departments as to your legal bona fides. Access to their infrastructure of course hinged on compatability with their business plan, namely the accumulation of more subscribers or viewers for their adevertisements. In addition they assumed a conservative position with regard to borderline content, refusing to broadcast material that entailed any legal risk. Over time this latter factor congealed so as to make them wary of any programme using materials appropriated under fair use, for example, and their risk-averse approach is arguably one of the reasons for its marginalization in televisual culture.
The Changing Political Economy of the Information Wars
Previously the opponents of media companies amounted to a few small companies trying to innovate and users trying to get music and video, often for free, but certainly untrammeled by digital rights management. This didn’t make for a very fair battle, and although the hardware industry occasionally weighed in to limit the media industry’s influence – and ensure that its own business opportunities were not disregarded – they went as far as their own interests reached and no further; there was, and is, no identity between user interests and the hardware industry in general.
The axis of conflict has been well established for many years now, a fight between media companies based on selling discrete parcels of data as cultural commodities (CDs, DVDs, databases) and those building business models based on leveraging access to monetize at other points in the life of information.
At its simplest level this is exemplified by the telecoms business: there can be no doubt that the take-up of broadband was fueled by the lure of copyrighted content available for free if one had a data transfer capacity that made download times tolerable. telecoms could leverage their position as a common carrier to abrogate responsibility for the bits passing over their wires, but were in fact capitalizing on the content industry’s inability to protect ‘their’ property.
Selling increased usability
As the number of broadband subscribers reached critical mass other opportunities arose, one example being mymp3.com, offering services that allowed people greater control over use of media that they owned. They required owners of CDs to insert the original disk whilst connected to mymp3’s database and could thereafter access the files from wherever they were connected to the net; it wasn’t based on copyright infringement, but transgressed the line of control which media companies have endeavored to enforce as they lose grip on the path of music through the net. the result of course was that they were shut down, even though they were adding value to the media commodity. Mymp3.com was easy to kill because it was a small company without significant commercial power or the deep-pockets to work the litigation game.
In recent years advertising has emerged as the main means of monetizing people’s online time, from Google to myspace. Google’s every acquisition is guided by two priorities (i) domination of the online advertising market (as demonstrated by their purchase of double click and the millions of partnerships they make with users via adwords) (ii) developing new content centres that will drive eyeballs towards their virtual real estate (google books, gmail, youtube). Unlike the smaller companies annihilated by the media combines in the 1998-2003 period, Google is too powerful to be pushed around and impossible to crush. They employ some of the best and most creative legal talent out there and are cherry picking the most gifted technologists. This is why the calculus has altered. So the question is, what will the new landscape look like, what will distinguish it from the old?
Data-networks effectively eliminate the obstacle posed by the cost of equipment – a computer is both a production station and a transmitter – although transmission costs for popular programs are expensive; fortunately p2p distribution channels and facilities like archive.org can provide solutions for producers who are not concerned with getting an immediate payback.
The New Gatekeepers
Having solved the problem of broadcast-scope, producers find that the problem is now how to find an audience. This question in fact entails two elements: how people decide what they want (preference formation) and the cost of finding what they’re looking when they already know that they want it (search-costs). Industrial media manufacturers solved these questions by investing hugely in marketing and then by either buying up distributors/retailers (vertical integration) or through partnerships. The online world divides the model of preference-formation between the traditional mechanisms of marketing combined with user-based recommendation systems, driven by proprietary algorithms. The latter tend to be used by more experienced users, other people find things through scatter-shot use of search engines. Sourcing the data is the preserve of search engines, either on the web as a whole, or on a site where you could reasonably expect to find the product (ebay, amazon, etc)
Users’ reliance on search places Google in a position of enormous power, and the search engine has permeated people’s experience of the web to the point where they forget that it’s even there: surveys have shown that people often run searches for google or yahoo from the google search itself! Much has been made of the fact that the search results are decided democratically, on the basis of the pattern of links clustered around search phrases, but in fact we can only take google’s word on it. Should google decide that a site is inappropriate it simply disappears.
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