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The Invisible Truth: Net Neutrality, Democracy, and the Death of the Death of News

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Net Neutrality, Democracy, and the Death of the Death of News

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Net Neutrality, Democracy, and the Death of the Death of News

The ailing economy has wrought havoc with media both as a business and as an institution. Every day, year, or even decade seems to bring a new metaphorical death: the death of communism, the end of history, the end of ideology, the death of television, the death of news. If we look closely at what was happening in the media industries in Canada leading up to the recession, we notice two opposing trends that have not been sufficiently reconciled. First there were major mergers of media conglomerates and secondly audiences changed their consumption habits. Many people now use the internet as their main source of news, rather than simply a supplement to their previous news consumption habits.

This has led to decreased advertizing revenues in the hard copy of newspapers, and because services like TiVo allow you to record television, watch it at your convenience, and even to skip the commercials, which is the primary source of revenue for so many media. But many of the world’s most valuable media companies make no money for years, until their cultural capital becomes so concentrated that their value jumps into the stratosphere, Google being the prime example. The Toronto Star recently cut 40 employees from their advertizing sales staff. Why on earth would they do that when advertizing accounts for nearly 80% of their income?

Granted, no one is buying advertizing space in newspapers. Does that mean you cut staff that you could simply retrain to become savvy with various forms of online advertizing? Perhaps it is not so easy. Perhaps your advertizing staff needs to have a whole new, radically different skill set. Rather than person-to-person congeniality and the ability to close, perhaps they need to take some lessons on new media. Or perhaps take some hints from the film and recently the tv industries in order to learn how to use product placement in their content to generate income. Surely, they do this now, what with all the references to blackberries, iPods, and cellphones in news stories. Are the news companies neglecting to actually collect the paycheque for doing it, though? Certainly, this creates some ethical quandaries regarding objectivity and some conflicts of interest as well. The question must, however, be posed. What is more important: the existence of an institution that has long served the public interest by acting as a government and corporate watchdog, or a dogmatic adherence to professional practices that are failing?

Instead of seeing a transgression in the practice of product placement, perhaps news companies should see an opportunity. By conducting investigative journalism to research businesses before soliciting them for product placement in content, news companies can generate content when they encounter questionable business practices, and when they encounter exemplary business practices, they can follow through with product placement with a clean conscience. Killing two birds with one stone, they serve the public interest by exposing shady businesses while simultaneously pursuing promotional revenue.

Far more pernicious than product placement, and for ideological reasons more acceptable, is the increasing concentration of ownership of media. In Canada, monopolies were granted to companies who invested in telecommunications infrastructure because otherwise, such infrastructure would not have been built because of obstacles to achieving the economies of scale necessary to operate such networks. This infrastructure was essential to nation-building*. However, the phenomenon of convergence has for all intents and purposes eviscerated diversity in the news. Now, rather than hire trained professionals to produce news content, reformatting has become pivotal. CTVGlobeMedia, which owns a newspaper, a bunch of television stations, some publishing companies, some radio stations, and a large share of one of the most profitable content franchises in television (CSI), now hires reformatters to simply reorganize news data to fit in another medium. In other words, a reformatter will take a news story from a television news show and repackage it for distribution in a newspaper, all owned by the same parent company. Amongst all the discourse about the democratization of content production heralded by the internet, the fact remains that those that benefit materially, that is, earn an income from such production, remain in a minority. Indeed, many even pay to produce and distribute such content. So concurrent with increasing audience fragmentation brought about by the 500 channel television spectrum, blogging, et cetera, there is the elimination of diversity in the “official” news industry. This dynamic is one of the central paradoxes of contemporary communications, and it is at the source of this “crisis” of media.

Furthermore, the partnerships forming between internet service providers and big players on the internet that supply content platforms has rendered the dangerous and inherently undemocratic practice of streamlining web traffic to major web sites. In other words, the huge internet companies such as yahoo, AOL, MSN etc. are trying to broker deals with ISPs that would render the speeds of data transfer on their sites much higher than that of smaller sites. If such deals come to pass, all this celebration of the inherently democratic character of the internet is for naught, and moreover, it is even outright deceptive and manipulative. This is where government needs to intervene to prevent such deals from happening, deals that would have a cumulative effect of bottlenecking internet traffic through the busiest hubs, thereby concentrating wealth, knowledge, perspectives.

For example, imagine you are trying to find independent perspectives on Canada’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan. Should such aforementioned deals between ISPs and internet conglomerates go down, an NGO site that has relatively independent information on the war would load slowly. You would become frustrated and move on. As we all know from experience, no matter how fast things get, unless you have the latest equipment, they never seem fast enough. There is nothing more irritating than watching the data transfer bar in the lower right hand corner of your screen crawling to the right. When you move on, you come upon news on the msn platform that loads instantaneously. Perhaps msn has a deal to develop informational networks in Afghanistan. They have a vested interest in certain portrayals. Hence, because of such deals, the objectivity of news would come under direct attack. The concept of net neutrality, which advocates equal speeds for all websites and critiques the attempted deals between internet content platforms and service providers, is one of the most salient issues in communications today. Pressure needs to be applied to governments to protect the internet from manipulative practices such as these, as they inherently endanger the very democratic elements of the internet that people sing from the rooftops.

* the portion of this article about telecommunications monopolies in Canada granted for the sake of nation-building was taken from Lectures by Professor David Skinner in his Introductions to Communications course at York University

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