Monday, January 18, 2010

How bad is a corporate Internet?

The Internet's future as a place for (near)-universal free expression is threatened by the increasing dominance of corporate actors online, according to Dave Winer. This is an important debate to have, and though I disagree with the argument, I absolutely want people continuing to make it: the balance of online power is not fixed, and it could easily shift much farther toward corporate centralization than it has so far. If that happens, I want people calling it out, and I hope I'm one of those people.

However, at this moment in time, I think it's not really the case that, as Winer says, "Your Internet presence is owned by corporate media as much as the newscaster on NBC Nightly News, or a reporter on All Things Considered, or the Public Editor of the NY Times." In fact, he's completely wrong about that.

The key difference between a reporter for a mainstream media organization, and you or I (assuming you are not a reporter for a mainstream media organization) (and leaving aside for the moment that I work for a large corporation myself) is that there is basically nothing compelling us to say anything other than whatever we feel is the truth. We have personal blogs and twitter accounts and, though the properties are owned by corporations, what we say on them absolutely isn't. We face zero recriminations for what we post, beyond a few corner cases (I can't leak trade secrets, and you probably don't want to see what happens if you publish Nazi propaganda). The fact that the medium is owned by corporations in no way impedes my ability to say whatever the fuck I like. If one corporation changes its policies and restricts my speech, I'll simply switch to another platform, and nothing about the architecture of the Internet impedes my ability to do so.

It is the case that corporations are trying to dominate the Internet by originating and controlling content that appears on it, but the Internet is made richer by that action. The more quality content there is online, the more people will come to seek it out, and the higher the likelihood is that they'll stumble across more independent voices in their travels than would otherwise be the case. The alternative for those seeking entertainment right now is the closed-off world of TV, or movies or newspapers or magazines or books - every one of which represent at their best a pale shadow of a small fraction of the amount of free expression that can be found online when you type two or three words into a search engine.

Winer also goes off on Wikipedia for some reason (kinda the antithesis of corporate-controlled media, I would think) and comes off sounding like he's got more axes to grind than valid arguments about why it's a degenerate force. He's concerned that Wikipedia squelches dissenting voices, and that's valid, but Wikipedia has a relatively robust tolerance for debate on its site. To the extent that articles don't reflect that debate, that's as it should be: people will dispute facts for all manner of illegitimate reasons (say, objecting to the theory of evolution for political gain) and I don't want those debates coloring what Wikipedia has to say at all. In cases where legitimate debate exists concerning a given fact or facts, I think Wikipedia does a pretty good job of either discussing the debate, or leaving out the fact until it can be resolved.

There are a number of other sentiments I object to in Winer's post itself, but to an extent that doesn't change the fact that I'm glad he wrote it. The Internet needs people to be over-vigilant when it comes to independent, free expression. The fact that what they say can be annoying or wrong is a feature of their perspective, not a bug.