unfinished work

Feb 08

Should The Web Have An Editorial Board

In an Op-ed in today’s New York Times, Cary H. Shermanthe chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America, accused the tech industry of overstating the risks of the proposed PIPA/SOPA legislation and described the protest by popular web sites as a misuse of power, saying in part.

"The hyperbolic mistruths, presented on the home pages of some of the world’s most popular Web sites, amounted to an abuse of trust and a misuse of power. When Wikipedia and Google purport to be neutral sources of information, but then exploit their stature to present information that is not only not neutral but affirmatively incomplete and misleading, they are duping their users into accepting as truth what are merely self-serving political declarations.

As it happens, the television networks that actively supported SOPA and PIPA didn’t take advantage of their broadcast credibility to press their case. That’s partly because “old media” draws a line between “news” and “editorial.” Apparently, Wikipedia and Google don’t recognize the ethical boundary between the neutral reporting of information and the presentation of editorial opinion as fact”.

Leaving aside his characterization of the impact of piracy and even his description of downloading as theft which are gross simplifications of complex issues, Cary poses an interesting question. In a world where everyone is a publisher, should consumers expect publishers to separate news and editorial? This framing suggests that a couple of interesting things about Cary’s worldview. It embeds a quaint assumption that information consumers are naive enough to believe that traditional media never mixes reporting and opinion. It also suggests that he does not understand how information is created on the web, or that he pines for an earlier era when high minded editorial boards, who controlled a tiny number of news outlets, told us what to think. 

The thing Cary does not mention about the SOPA/PIPA protest is that Wikipedia and Google were only two of 115,000 websites that blacked out for the day. In most cases blacked out sites linked to a wide variety of sources that explained the concerns about the PIPA/SOPA legislation. No one decided who would black out or how the concerns would be presented or by whom. This was a very broad based collection of diverse sites that came together spontaneously out of a common concern for the risks of well meaning but misguided legislation.

The opposition was not orchestrated by Google. I know from conversations with their policy team there is no way they would have blacked out their banner if they were the only site to do so.

It was also not orchestrated by Wikipedia. They arrived at their decision to black out their site through a remarkably open but entirely internal process. If you follow the debate on this wiki, it is hard to find any hint of “corporate” self interest. In fact, one of the biggest arguments put forward by wikipedians opposed to the move was that the blackout would hurt Wikipedia. The advocates were willing to take that risk to defend a principle. 

Last fall concerns about PIPA/SOPA were voiced, by entrepreneurs, technologists, constitutional scholars, and venture capitalists, but there was so little coverage of these concerns from traditional media outlets, that congressmen could claim in December that “no one opposes these bills”. That news black out would certainly seem to be in the interests of media companies pushing more aggressive copyright protection, but we will never know if that was their motivation because unlike Wikipedia, traditional media companies did not invite us to participate in the discussion. 

Cary seems to think that January 18th will be remembered as the day responsible media descended into mob chaos. I think it will be remembered as the day it became clear that participatory media was real, was here to stay, and would be a force to be reckoned with.

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