THERE ARE NOW nearly 3 billion users of the internet.It has seen staggering growth, from a proposal to world dominance in twenty five years.
As the web celebrates this marker, its proposer Tim Berners-Lee has called for internet users to ‘ask how we can help make it a truly open, secure and creative platform – available to everyone.’
The idea was that the internet would provide a vast digital commons that would mean fair access to culture for all. The reality now pits writers against readers, and more generally, the consumers of culture against producers of it, in the battle over free content.
Who will be better off and who will be worse off, as the migration of culture to the world wide web plays out? So far, the equity effects are uneven, at best. The hope that the internet can continue to be ‘truly open and secure’ is already compromised by the capture of it in the nets of global commerce.
We need to weigh up whether the appearance of democracy on the web – the greater access to writing and reading made possible by blogging and self-publishing and citizen journalism – is not merely commercial exploitation, coming at the cost of professional writing and writers.
The vexed issue of digital copyright has been highlighted with the tabling in Federal Parliament in February of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s final report on it.
The argument has been about protecting copyright while managing cultural access for all users of internet content, from books to apps and music. It is happening in a global context, where sovereign borders don’t protect copyright and where variations in the law from country to country complicate matters.
The report recommends adopting the ‘controversial’ (in Attorney-General Brandis’ words) exception for ‘Fair Use’, which is the law in the world’s largest provider and disseminator of intellectual property, the US.
‘Fair Use’ appeals to those who want the system streamlined to keep pace with e-commerce and who want to keep the costs down for users and some providers. But originators of content, like authors, musicians and film-makers, resist the measures as a wholesale bargaining away of their livelihoods.
In the leading US example, the Google project, the uploading of large numbers of books to a digital library was challenged by the Writers’ Guild and others as a breach of intellectual property rights. But the US Federal Supreme Court ruled in favour of Google that such a library fell within the ‘fair use’ provisions.
Devices and Desires
With the migration of publishing online, by traditional and self-publishers, the question becomes whether written culture is more, or less, accessible.
The buying and borrowing of books in the old style doesn’t equate to the speed and ease of downloads and internet browsing, but some have argued that moving writing online disadvantages those who can’t afford computers, tablets and e-reading devices.
The market for reading online is growing very fast; 23% of Americans said they had read ebooks in 2012, up from 16% in 2011.This figure, quoted in the Wall Street Journal, is now freely and easily accessed on an iPad from Australia with a click on a search engine, showing how the internet has also revolutionised the task of professional writing and researching. But it also makes reading, writing and researching depend on getting online.
Education in particular has felt the internet’s uneven equity effects. The introduction of BYOD (bring your own device) programs in public schools in the last year has been the latest response to the rise of online content, and an indicator that online learning is no longer optional.
While a 2009 Bureau of Statistics survey showed nine out of ten Australian households with children had access to a computer, and 86% had access to the internet, predictably this access was income-sensitive. Only 60% of children in households in the lowest 20% of incomes had access to the internet at home while in all other quintiles it was more than 80%.
Direction of change
Social media, including blogging and citizen journalism, are dramatically affecting the market for professional writing and image-making. Facebook users topped 1 billion a month, or one in seven worldwide, in October 2012. The imperative to write on and to the internet is clear.
What is not as clear is how journalists and professional writers will make their living at it, in the company of amateurs who will produce column inches for free. The consequences in the collapse of print journalism are registered in job losses and share price slides.
The experience of other arts like music and photography are indicative of where these trends, for producers and consumers of writing, are leading.
Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, is quoted as saying in May 2013 that ‘… there’s no such thing as Flickr Pro, because today, with cameras as pervasive as they are, there is no such thing really as professional photographers’.
As a blogger tartly replied: ‘not everyone with a camera is a professional photographer’. The technology is now such that most cameras can take a publishable photo. This has seen the market for professional images undermined, with people also sourcing images from the web for free.
The music industry has followed a trajectory that can be seen to be happening in writing a decade later. Album sales were trending up until 1999, but they reversed their direction until, by the end of the decade, they had slipped to 1973 levels.
The industry made much of the interruption of Napster and other file-sharing (piracy) platforms. In 2001, Napster was ordered by a US court to close its file-swapping website.
The claim that internet piracy had crashed the business model of the recording industry, explaining why millions of dollars in revenue that would otherwise have flowed to the legitimate performers and producers of popular music was lost, is complicated by the change in format that downloads make possible. It has seen the collapse of the CD as a format for recorded music – with it has gone album sales in favour of downloading individual songs. Some consumers claim this has aggravated the problem by causing the product to change in the 2000s, becoming much less interesting and various.
It’s hard to avoid the comparison between this and the move from books to e-books. And it might reflect a problem for writing, too – that the ‘understory’ of small publishers, niche books and literary locals that underpin reading could be lost, as the economies of scale that internet markets require support only the ‘canopy’ of best-sellers and blockbusters.
Perhaps this environmental degradation may be the greatest threat from the internet to writing and reading, long term, especially in literary and regional sectors of the market.
Myth of Origin
Will the internet ideal founder on the tendency of all commons, according to classical political economy, to become enclosed and privatised? We see the internet co-opted to mass surveillance and the rise of monopolists like Google and Amazon.
It was JFK who observed that ‘if Marx’s editors had paid him better we may never have had communism’. The internet as a drama of capital accumulation is often likened to the frontiers of the Wild West.
As photographer and blogger Ian Plant puts it: ‘All of our quaint and old-fashioned standards regarding privacy and intellectual property rights are being swept away … with young Internet users in particular, anything found on the web is considered “free stuff,” to be shared, repurposed, and memed in ways you can’t even imagine.’
The challenge now is to imagine what equity looks like in the wake of the internet tsunami. We need to ask whether the ease and freedom of access offered by the web might still preserve the quality and variety of culture.
Or whether the internet as ‘a truly open, secure and creative platform’ has now morphed into an engine of injustice.
*This article first appeared on Australian Author Online, March 25.