Posts about government

Get off the lawn

There’s one thing that Rupert Murdoch, Arianna Huffington, Steve Brill, and I agreed on yesterday – and and there’s probably nothing else one can imagine this group would ever find consensus around. At the two-day Federal Trade Commission “workshop” (read: hearing) that asked how journalism will “survive” (their word) in the internet age, we all told the commissioner to kindly butt out.

Murdoch talked about a drumbeat building to bail out newspapers and how that would be a mistake, just as bailing out GM was. The government shouldn’t save companies that make things customers don’t want, he argued. Huffington said there’s no need for government intervention and after her speech (read: testimony), I interviewed her for my upcoming Guardian MediaTalkUSA podcast and when I pointed out that she agreed with Rupert, she pointed out that he was asking for government favors in his threats to try to rewrite fair use. Brill started his talk begging government to stay out.

And I told Liebowitz that the future of news will be entrepreneurial not institutional; the institutions had and blew their chance. What we need is a level lawn where the tender shoots of these new businesses can grow without government trampling them on its way to try to protect the legacy players.

But the commissioner’s title for this “workshop” alone – “How will journalism survive the internet age?” – is prejudicial, a foreshadowing of the results they have already prescribed: it implies saving the legacy players when, as the Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton said at the hearings today, journalism doesn’t need to be saved, it needs to be created. (The reason I’m not there today is that I am teaching my entrepreneurial journalism course. That’s one way to save journalism: build it.) The choice of speakers was itself prejudicial: mostly the old players who played their tiny violins. The questioning was prejudicial: an FTC bureaucrat threw a newspaper exec a soft ball to decry aggregators and suggest how he wanted to get money out of them (not hearing the idea that aggregators who are adding value to the content). Liebowitz’s presumptions about the event were prejudicial; in his opening talk, he said he has already scheduled more hearings to talk about copyright (read: changing copyright to favor the dying institutions).

My requestion to Liebowitz and company: Get off our lawn!

Maybe, just maybe, he heard a bit of this. He told the Wall Street Journal last night, “I think the message from today is be very, very cautious before you do anything.” How about nothing.

But from the looks of Twitter, it’s worse today. Rep. Henry Waxman told the group today that “Congress responds to market failures.” But this is not a market failure. It’s a market, doing what markets do. Let the market do that.

Rep. Waxman: Get off our lawn!

First, do no harm, government

Relevant to today’s FTC workshops (read: hearings) on the “survival” (their word… I would have said “rebirth:) of journalism in the internet age, Geoffrey Cowan and David Westphal issue a good set of principles for government involvement (read: meddling or support):

First and foremost, do no harm. A cycle of powerful innovation is under way. To the extent possible, government should avoid retarding the emergence of new models of newsgathering.

Second, the government should help promote innovation, as it did when the Department of Defense funded the research that created the Internet or when NASA funded the creation of satellites that made cable television and direct TV possible.

Third, for commercial media, government-supported mechanisms that are content neutral — such as copyright protections, postal subsidies and taxes — are preferable to those that call upon the government to fund specific news outlets, publications or programs.

I disagree about their conclusion: that government has always supported media (with postal discounts, legal notices, tax breaks) and that should continue. I disagree on principle and as a practical matter. Postal discounts are in force for many – including junk mailers – and in any case they become less relevant when news isn’t printed. Legal notices, I believe, should go online in standard data forms and feeds, making them more available to more people, giving us a permanent record of them, and – critically – saving taxpayers money. There’s no reason for media to have tax breaks (except, as other industries receive them, for innovation).

FTC regulates our speech

The Federal Trade Commission just released rules to regulate product endorsements not just in advertisements but also on blogs. (PDF here; the regs don’t start until page 55.)

It is a monument to unintended consequence, hidden dangers, and dangerous assumptions.

Mind you, I hate one of its apparent targets: Pay Per Post and its ilk, which attempt to co-opt the voice of bloggers. But I hate government regulation of speech more.

And mind you, I am all in favor of transparency; I disclose to a comic fault here. I think that openness is the best fix for questions of trust and advise companies and politicians and certainly governments to become transparent by default as enlightened self-interest. But mandating this for anyone who dares speak online? Foolish.

There are so many bad assumptions inherent in the FTC’s rules.

First, Pay Per Post et al, as I realized late to the game, are not aimed at fooling consumers. Who would read the boring, sycophantic drivel its people write? No, they are aimed at fooling Google and its algorithms. It’s human spam. And it’s Google’s job to regulate that.

Second, the FTC assumes – as media people do – that the internet is a medium. It’s not. It’s a place where people talk. Most people who blog, as Pew found in a survey a few years ago, don’t think they are doing anything remotely connected to journalism. I imagine that virtually no one on Facebook thinks they’re making media. They’re connecting. They’re talking. So for the FTC to go after bloggers and social media – as they explicitly do – is the same as sending a government goon into Denny’s to listen to the conversations in the corner booth and demand that you disclose that your Uncle Vinnie owns the pizzeria whose product you just endorsed.

Insanity and inanity. And danger.

The regulations raise no end of questions. For example: How much do I have disclose? Before I say anything nice about anyone, do I need to list every advertiser I’ve ever had? Every possible business relationship? You think my disclosures are comical now, just wait.

And what about automated ads, such as those from Google? I have been writing nice things about my treatment at Sloan Kettering. This has caused ads to come up on my blog, via Google, from the hospital. Presuming someone clicked on them, I’ve made money from the hospital. Does that taint what I say or me if I don’t disclose the payment? That’s the level of absurdity this can reach.

The regulations are not aimed just as bloggers, of course, but at endorsements of all sorts, including from celebrities and experts. The FTC requires advertisers to continually reconfirm that endorsers are bona fide users of the endorsed product. Do we really believe that Tiger Woods drives a Buick? How will that be policed?

The FTC also concedes that it treats critics at publications differently – less stringently – than bloggers. Don’t they realize that people on travel and gadget and food publications get freebies all the time. I’ve long believed that ethics alone should compel them to disclose. But the FTC doesn’t.

I love this one: The FTC now forbids media advertisers from changing a critic’s opinion in a blurb. Ha! That happened to me constantly when I was a critic. (“Colossal piece of crap” became “Colossal! – Jeff Jarvis, People”.) I even wrote a column in People complaining about an “NBC pinhead” doing this. A few weeks later, my colleague on the launch of Entertainment Weekly, went to Burbank for a business meeting with the network with an exec who identified himself as that pinhead.

Note, by the way, that when I did cover entertainment in Time Inc., conflict came not only from advertisers (Hallmark pulled all its advertising after I dared give Hall of Fame
treacle the reviews it deserved) but also from within the company (the head of HBO wanted me fired and the editors of Time Inc. tried to change my opinions). How the hell could that be regulated? Only by my fighting back, it turned out.

And there is the greatest myth embedded within the FTC’s rules: that the government can and should sanitize the internet for our protection. The internet is the world and the world is messy and I don’t want anyone – not the government, not a newspaper editor – to clean it up for me, for I fear what will go out in the garbage: namely, my rights.

What I now truly dread is that the FTC is holding hearings about journalism on Dec. 1 and 2. As Star-Ledger editor Jim Willse (full disclosure: he hired me a few times) said in my Guardian podcast last month (full disclosure: I work for the Guardian): the words, “we’re from the government, we’re here to help,” should be met with trepidation.

: See also Reason’s take. More comments from others coming soon.

Dan Gillmor sees full employment for First Amendment attorneys.

Steve Garfield’s disclosure is longer than his post. Fit that in Twitter.

Andrew Keen says the regs should include “bent reviewers on Amazon.” Damn, Keen and I are agreeing too much these days.

FTC guy tells blogger to return books after a review. These people have no clue as to reality. Publishers don’t want them back.

Here’s Fortune on the story.

Here‘s the Guardian’s Bobbie Johnson, unsure about the regs. And here‘s Daniel Tunkelang, also debating with himself.

Techdirt points out more absurdities.

Jack Shafer calls the rules the FTC’s mad power grab.

The open EU

I got email this morning from someone getting ready to present to the European Parliament on the changes in journalism from their perspective. He said: “Given the shift to hyper-local journalism, being a supra-national body seems to be a problem. It is a particular problem for the EP in that it strives for relevance and to make its voice heard.” What should their strategy be? Here was my answer:

Unsurprisingly, my response starts with transparency: all the actions and information of government must be online, searchable, linkable, in a form that can be shared and analyzed.

I argue for this not just because of a will to catch the bastards with no end of citizen watchdogs (not, perhaps, the best selling point from your side of the discussion now – though transparency is an important element in the new, post-institutional ecosystem of news). I argue that it is in government’s own enlightened self-interest to have everything out there because, thanks to the link, source material – whether from government or from companies or from witnesses to news – will become part of news coverage; we will link to information at its source and we will expect it to be there.

It is also in government’s interest to have Googlejuice (dare I bring up a large American brand to the EU?); it will want to be discovered when citizens search for information. Indeed, search will be the primary means of contact between citizens and government. That is the case when citizens initiate the contact.

When government wants to make contact – when it wants to disseminate information or, god help us, messages out to the people – it soon will no longer be able to rely on mass media and the press to do that. It will have to rely on the citizenry, on people spreading that word, but only if it’s worthy, only if they care to. Government can establish a Twitter account, yes, but its tweets won’t be retweeted unless fellow Twitterers care to, unless that message is relevant and useful to them. And in a transparent government, it may not be up to government to decide what messages are spread; it will be up to the citizen-users.

Having said that, it is still vital for government – its politicians and its agencies’ bureaucrats alike – to establish these connections using the social tools of online. The internet itself is a social tool; it is not a medium but a connection machine. So just as one wants Googlejuice for search, one wants relationships for the social web.

Here’s the hard part. I argue that in a post-industrial economy and society, when process overtakes the end-product, we customers, citizens, users expect to be included in the creation of products and decisions, which means we expect them to be opened up before they are done. This is why Google (there, I did it again) releases products as betas; it is necessarily an invitation to collaborate – as well as a statement of humility and humanity: ‘This thing is unfinished. It’s imperfect. Help us finish it.’

We need beta government. When I’ve spoken with government people, they confess a phobia of failure. Yet without the opportunity to fail, government – like industry and media – cannot experiment and thus innovate. We must give government the license to fail. That is difficult, especially because it is the citizenry that must grant that permission. I think government must begin to recast its relationship by opening up pilot procts to input and discussion, to smart ideas and improvements. I’m not suggesting for a second that every decision be turned into a vote, that law become a wiki. Government still exercises its responsibility. But it needs to use the new mechanisms of the web to hear those ideas. I would look for examples to Dell’s Ideastorm, Starbucks’ My Starbucks Idea, and Best Buy’s Idea Exchange.

Finally to your question about local v. national and extra-national: I wouldn’t worry greatly. In the U.S., we didn’t have national media until TV networks reached critical mass and we didn’t have a quality national news brand until satellites enabled The New York Times (not to mention USA Today) to transmit pages to remote printing plants. Most of the journalistic resource in the U.S. has been spent locally, most of it by the monopolies that are now dying. In Europe, local newspapers are in the same sinking ship and, as in the U.S, I believe there are opportunities in local (in our work on new business models for news at CUNY – at newsinnovation.com – we forecast a robust and sustainable local ecosystem for news).

But in Europe, unlike the U.S., each nation has long had and still has strong and competitive national news markets. I think that will continue. Indeed, where languages cross borders, there are new opportunities to grow internationally; look at the Guardian, which exploded online and gets two-thirds of its audience from outside the UK. I believe that strong national news brands – some of them new, perhaps – will be supported in Europe because the the public is so accustomed to having them and without production and distribution costs and the need to reproduce commodity information and content (‘do what you do best and link to the rest’) they can find new efficiency.

Still, as you say, that should not lull government into thinking it can continue, business as usual, working through those national brands, for many citizens will go around them – or rather, will go to them only when brought there by a link through search or aggregation or peers. As a college student famously told a researcher in The New York Times a year ago, “if the news is that important, it will find me.” Marissa Mayer and Eric Scmidt of Google (there I go again) is talking now not about hyperlocal but about “hyperpersonal news streams.” Now return to the start of this discussion: This is why government must have connections with people, so its information can insinuate itself into the web and their lives and – here, at last, is the real point – so government, especially such a supra-national body, is not remote from the needs and lives of its citizens but is, instead, in constant conversation with them.

The need for – and risks of – government transparency

At yesterday’s Personal Democracy Forum – where I was in the unfortunate position of speaking inbetween two of my favorite geniuses, danah boyd and David Weinberger – I sang the obvious hymn to the choir, arguing that government in a Google age means transparency. All governments’ actions and information must be searchable and linkable; we need an API to government to enable us to build atop it.

I also argue that as newspapers die – and they will – government transparency is a critical element in the new news ecosystem that will fill the void. When government information is openly available, a dwindling handful of journalistic watchdogs in a state capital can be augmented by thousands, even millions of watchdogs: citizens empowered. I’ll write more about this as part of the New Business Models for News Project.

But at PDF, I also listed four cautions regarding transparency – charges to us as citizens:

* We have to give permission to fail. In speaking with government people about What Would Google Do?, I’ve learned how much they fear failure and how cautious that makes them. Without the license to fail, government will never experiment, never open up, and never be collaborative.

In other words, we need beta government: the ability of government to try things, to open up its process, to invite us in, to collaborate. That was the lesson I learned from Google about releasing a beta: it is a statement of humility and openness and an invitation to join in. We need that in government.

* Transparency must not always mean gotcha. Oh, there are plenty of people to catch red-handed. But if transparency is about nothing more than catching bureacrats and politicians buying lunches, then we will not have the openness we need to make government collaborative.

* We have to figure out how to make government and its work collaborative. What if we were able to help government do its job? What if it acted like a network? What if it acted like Wikipedia, where a small percentage – less than 2 percent, says Clay Shirky – create it; it would not take many citizens to help make government work in new ways.

* We have to turn the discussion to the positive, the constructive. Again, there are plenty of bastards to catch. But we must move past that – especially once we have more watchdogs watching – so we can build.

I ran around the auditorium like a fool – a role I enjoy – playing Oprah and asking everyone in the audience to say what they thought government for the Google age looked like. Since I was running, I couldn’t take notes, but the #pdf09 Twitter hashtag captured some and PDF will put up a video later. Lots of great thoughts.

‘No longer the province of elites’

In a Guardian interview, UK PM Gordon Brown says that the internet changes foreign affairs forever:

He described the internet era as “more tumultuous than any previous economic or social revolution”. “For centuries, individuals have been learning how to live with their next-door neighbours,” he added.

“Now, uniquely, we’re having to learn to live with people who we don’t know.

“People have now got the ability to speak to each other across continents, to join with each other in communities that are not based simply on territory, streets, but networks; and you’ve got the possibility of people building alliances right across the world.”

This, he said, has huge implications. “That flow of information means that foreign policy can never be the same again.

“You cannot have Rwanda again because information would come out far more quickly about what is actually going on and the public opinion would grow to the point where action would need to be taken.

“Foreign policy can no longer be the province of just a few elites.”

Neither government nor business nor education.

The API revolution

It soon will be – if it not already is – known as the Twitter revolution in Iran. But I’ll think of it as the API revolution.

For it’s Twitter’s architecture – which enables anyone to create applications that call and feed into it – that makes it all but impervious from blocking by tyrants’ censors. Twitter is not a site or a blog at an address. You don’t have to go to it. It can come to you (as newspapers should). Twitter is an outpost in the cloud and there can be unlimited points of access from every application and site using its API, so the crowd can always stay ahead of the people formerly known as the authorities. That, I believe, is the keystone in the architecture of the new infrastructure of unstoppable freedom of speech and democracy. That’s what enables Clay Shirky to declare, “This is it – the big one.”

It isn’t merely “social media” that make this a step-change in the internet’s impact on society and government, as the reporters who’ve been calling me and other pundits want us to say. Sree Sreenivasan tweeted, “on CNN just now, I asked – China quake, Mumbai attacks, US election, Iran… how many times can one technology ‘come of age’?” RIght. See January 16, 2001 when, as Howard Rheinhold recounts in Smart Mobs, tens of thousands of protesters against Philippine president Joseph Estrada were brought to a square with an SMS. See Mark Zuckerberg proudly talking about the Spanish-language Facebook being used to organize Colombians against FARC. Iran is just another example of people organizing themselves online for a cause or a revolution. The people will avail themselves the latest available technology to serve their needs and cause.

Twitter is different because it’s live and social – the retweet is the shot heard ’round the world – and because that API lets it survive any dictator’s game of whack-a-mole. But it’s by no means the final word in digital revolutions. I know we will soon see witnesses and participants to events such as these broadcasting them live from their mobile phones. We will see people organizing with Google Maps. We can’t imagine what will come next.

Twitter has been used in many ways in the Iran story:
* Citizens of Iran are using it to inform each other.
* They are using it, most importantly, to organize.
* They are using it to inform the world.
* We outside Iran are using us to see what people were saying and doing in Iran. Journalists are using it as a tip service to news and a way to find witnesses to interview. I’ve said in Twitter – to respond to the obvious complaint I hear – that, no, Twitter is no more the final source of news in and of itself than Wikipedia is the only source of knowledge. But it is a tip service for journalists who then still need to do their job and report.
* We can use it to see the interests of at least the Twitter demographic – limited though it may be – and then to use that to beat up CNN, Fox, and MSNBC for their terrible news judgment last weekend as they all but ignored a revolution.

Of course, Twitter – and Facebook and blogs and camera phones – alone cannot win a revolution. They cannot protect their users from government’s bullets and jails, as we have seen all to tragically in Iran. (This thought led Tom Friedman to the worst line on the New York Times editorial page, worse even than the worst of Maureen Dowd: “Bang-bang beats tweet-tweet.”) Fighting for freedom requires courage and risk we must not underestimate. But at least these tools allow allies to find each other and to let the world know of their plight. For thanks to the fact that anyone in the world – outside of North Korea – now has a printing press and a broadcast tower, they can be assured that the whole world is watching.

I recorded a Skype video interview for Al Jazeera English that will air at 20000 GMT today and looked at the camera and said, “Despots, beware.” Your days are numbered. This is more than a revolution. It is an evolution in the architecture of speech and freedom.

: LATER: Note that not just Iran is censoring the internet. Germany wants to, seeking a censorship infrastructure that can be used for one purpose today, another tomorrow. Oh, when will they ever learn?

Government by the people

In the midst of the UK’s MP expenses scandal – and as Gordon Brown’s government teeters, with nudges over the edge from The Guardian itself – the paper asked its columnists and then its readers to reform, even reinvent government. The results are in and are fascinating.

Tom Clark’s writeup in today’s paper service is quick to point out that this is a survey of Guardian readers with their baggage in their left hands. But that makes it even more surprising that, for example, 70% say they do not support demographic quotas as a means to configure Parliament. They want to change voting and the structure of Parliament and they want a constitution. May I recommend a First Amendment?

What’s exciting about this is that it turns the usual discourse around, shifting from complaining about government to doing something about it, taking responsibility. After the destructive comes the constructive.

: Speaking of…. See also Kevin Anderson’s report from the Deutsche Welle conference on the need for journalists to focus more on solutions than problems. More here.

: And see Lloyd Shepard’s tweet: “sheesh. when voting is a process of elimination, you know democracy’s in trouble. this is how people end up supporting arsenal”