Europe Against the Net

I’ve spent a worrisome weekend reading three documents from Europe about regulating the net:

In all this, I see danger for the net and its freedoms posed by corporate protectionism and a rising moral panic about technology. One at a time:

Articles 11 & 13: Protectionism gone mad

Article 11 is the so-called link tax, the bastard son of the German Leistungsschutzrechtor ancillary copyright that publishers tried to use to force Google to pay for snippets. They failed. They’re trying again. Reda, a member of the European Parliament, details the dangers:

Reproducing more than “single words or very short extracts” of news stories will require a licence. That will likely cover many of the snippets commonly shown alongside links today in order to give you an idea of what they lead to….

No exceptionsare made even for services run by individuals, small companies or non-profits, which probably includes any monetised blogs or websites.

European journalists protest that this will serve media corporations, not journalists. Absolutely.

But the danger to free speech, to the public conversation, and to facts and evidence are greater. Journalism and the academe have long depended on the ability to quote — at length — source material to then challenge or expand upon or explain it. This legislation begins to make versions of that act illegal. You’d have to pay a license to a news property to quote it. Nevermind that 99.9 percent of journalism quotes others. The results: Links become blind alleys sending you to god-knows-what dark holes exploited by spammers and conspiracy theories. News sites lose audience and impact (witness how a link tax forced Google News out of Spain). Even bloggers like me could be restricted from quoting others as I did above, killing the web’s magnificent ability to foster conversation with substance.

Why do this? Because publishers think they can use their clout to get legislators to bully the platforms into paying them for their “content,” refusing to come to grips with the fact that the real value now is in the audience the platforms send to the publishers. It is corporate protectionism born of political capital. It is corrupt and corrupting of the net. It is a crime.

Article 13 is roughly Europe’s version of the SOPA/PIPA fight in the U.S.: protectionism on behalf of entertainment media companies. It requires sites where users might post material —isn’t that every interactive site on the net ?— to “preemptively buy licenses for anything that users may possibly upload,” in Reda’s explanation. They will also have to deploy upload filters — which are expensive to operate and notoriously full of false positives — to detect anything that is not licensed. The net: Sites will not allow anyone to post any media that could possibly come from anywhere.

So we won’t be able to quote or adapt. Death to the meme. Yes, there are exceptions for criticism, but as Lawrence Lessig famously said “fair use is the right to hire a lawyer.” This legislation attempts to kill what the net finally brought to society: diverse and open conversation.

Cairncross Review: Protecting journalism as it was

The UK dispatched Dame Frances Cairncross, a former journalist and economist, to review the imperiled state of news and she returned with a long and well-intentioned but out-of-date document. A number of observations:

  • She fails — along with many others — to define quality journalism. “Ultimately, ‘high quality journalism’ is a subjective concept that depends neither solely on the audience nor the news provider. It must be truthful and comprehensive and should ideally — but not necessarily — be edited. You know it when you see it….” (Just like porn, but porn’s easier.) Thus she cannot define the very thing her report strives to defend. A related frustration: She doesn’t very much criticize the state of journalism or the reasons why trust in it is foundering, only noting its fall.
  • I worry greatly about her conclusion that “intervention may be needed to determine what, and how, news is presented online.” So you can’t define quality but you’re going to regulate how platforms present it? Oh, the platforms are trying to understand quality in news. (Disclosure: I’m working on just such a project, funded by but independent of Facebook.) But the solutions are not obvious. Cairncross wants the platforms to have an obligation “to nudge people towards reading news of high quality” and even to impose quotas for quality news on the platforms. Doesn’t that make the platforms the editors? Is that what editors really want? Elsewhere in the report, she argues that “this task is too important to leave entirely to the judgment of commercial entities.” But BBC aside, that is where the task of news lies today: in commercial entities. Bottom line: I worry about *any* government intervention in speech and especially in journalism.
  • She rightly focuses less on national publications and more on the loss of what she calls “public interest news,” which really means local reporting on government. Agreed. She also glances by the paradox that public-interest news “is often of limited interest to the public.” Well, then, I wish she had looked at the problem and opportunity from the perspective of what the net makes possible. Why not start with new standards to require radical transparency of government, making every piece of legislation, every report, every budget public? There have been pioneering projects in the UK to do just that. That would make the task of any journalist more efficient and it would enable collaborative effort by the community: citizens, librarians, teachers, classes…. She wants a government fund to pay for innovations in this arena. Fine, then be truly innovative. She further calls for the creation of an Institute for Public Interest News. Do we need another such organization? Journalism has so many.
  • She explores a VAT tax break for subscriptions to online publications. Sounds OK, but I worry that this would motivate more publications to put up paywalls, which will further redline quality journalism for those who can afford it.
  • She often talked about “the unbalanced relationship between publishers and online platforms.” This assumes that there is some natural balance, some stasis that can be reestablished, as if history should be our only guide. No, life changed with the internet.
  • She recommends that the platforms be required to set out codes of conduct that would be overseen by a regulator “with powers to insist on compliance.” She wants the platforms to commit “not to index more than a certain amount of a publisher’s content without an explicit agreement.” First, robots.txt and such already put that in publishers’ control. Second, Cairncross acknowledges that links from platforms are beneficial. She worries about — but does not define — too much linking. I see a slippery slope to Article 11 (above) and, really, so does Cairncross: “There are grounds for worrying that the implementation of Article 11 in the EU may backfire and restrict access to news.” In her code of conduct, platforms should not impose their ad platforms on publishers — but if publishers want revenue from the platforms they pretty much have to. She wants platforms to give early warnings of changes in algorithms but that will be spammed. She wants transparency of advertising terms (what other industries negotiate in public?).
  • Cairncross complains that “most newspapers have lacked the skills and resources to make good use of data on their readers” and she wants the platforms to share user data with publishers. I agree heartily. This is why I worry that another European regulatory regime — GDPR — makes that nigh unto impossible.
  • She wants a study of the competitive landscape around advertising. Yes, fine. Note, thought, that advertising is becoming less of a force in publishers’ business plans by the day.
  • Good news: She rejects direct state support for journalism because “the effect may be to undermine trust in the press still further, at a time when it needs rebuilding.” She won’t endorse throttling the BBC’s digital efforts just because commercial publishers resent the competition. She sees danger in giving the publishing industry an antitrust exception to negotiate with the platforms (as is also being proposed in the U.S.) because that likely could lead to higher prices. And she thinks government should help publishers adapt by “encouraging the development and distribution of new technologies and business models.” OK, but what publishers and which technologies and models? If we knew which ones would work, we’d already be using them.
  • Finally, I note a subtle paternalism in the report. “The stories people want to read may not always be the ones they ought to read in order to ensure that a democracy can hold its public servants properly to account.” Or the news people need in their lives might not be the news that news organizations are reporting. Also: Poor people — who would be cut off by paywalls — “are not just more likely to have lower levels of literacy than the better-off; their digital skills also tend to be lower.” Class distinctions never end.

It’s not a bad report. It is cautious. But it’s also not visionary, not daring to imagine a new journalism for a new society. That is what is really needed.

The Commons report: Finding fault

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee is famously the body Mark Zuckerberg refused to testify before. And, boy, are they pissed. Most of this report is an indictment of Facebook on many sins, most notably Cambridge Analytica. For the purposes of this post, about possible regulation, I won’t indulge in further prosecuting or defending the case against Facebook (see my broader critique of the company’s culture here). What interests me in this case is the set of committee recommendations that could have an impact on the net, including our net outside of the UK.

The committee frets — properly — over malicious impact of Brexit. And where did much of the disinformation that led to that disaster come from? From politicians: Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, et al. This committee, headed by a conservative, makes no mention of colleagues. As with the Cairncross report, why not start at home and ask what government needs to do to improve the state of its contribution to the information ecosystem? A few more notes:

  • Just as Cairncross has trouble defining quality journalism, the Commons committee has trouble defining the harm it sees everywhere on the internet. It puts off that critical and specific task to an upcoming Online Harms white paper from the government. (Will there also be an Online Benefits white paper?) The committee calls for holding social media companies — “which is not necessarily either a ‘platform’ or a ‘publisher’,” the report cryptically says — liable for “content identified as harmful after it has been posted by users.” The committee then goes much farther, threatening not just tech companies but technologists. My emphasis: “If tech companies (including technological engineers involved in creating the software for the companies) are found to have failed to meet their obligations under such a Code [of Ethics], and not acted against the distribution of harmful and illegal content, the independent regulator should have the ability to launch legal proceedings against them, with the prospect of large fines being administered….” Them’s fightin’ words, demonizing not just the technology and the technology company but the technologist.
  • Again and again in reading the committee’s report, I wrote in the margin “China” or “Iran,” wondering how the precedents and tools wished for here could be used by authoritarian regimes to control speech on the net. For example: “There is now an urgent need to establish independent regulation. We believe that a compulsory Code of Ethics should be established, overseen by an independent regulator, setting out what constitutes harmful content.” How — except in the details — does that differ from China deciding what is harmful to the minds of the masses? Do we really believe that a piece of “harmful content” can change the behavior of a citizen for the worse without many other underlying causes? Who knows best for those citizens? The state? Editors? Technologists? Or citizens themselves? The committee notes — with apparent approval — a new French law that “allows judges to order the immediate removal of online articles that they decide constitute disinformation.” All this sounds authoritarian to me and antithetical to the respect and freedom the net gives people.
  • The committee expands the definition of personal data — which, under GDPR, is already ludicrously broad, to include, for example, your IP address. It wants to include “inferred data.” I hate to think what that could do to the discipline of machine learning and artificial intelligence — to the patterns and inferences that will compose patterns discerned and knowledge produced by machines.
  • The committee wants to impose a 2% “digital services tax on UK revenues of big technology companies.” On what basis, besides vendetta against big (American) companies?
  • The Information Commissioner told the committee that “Facebook needs to significantly change its business model and its practices to maintain trust.” How often does government get into the nitty-gritty of companies’ business models? And let’s be clear: The problem with Facebook’s business model — click-based, volume-based, attention-based advertising — is precisely what drove media into the abyss of mistrust. So should the government tell media to change its business model? They wouldn’t dare.
  • The report worries about the “pernicious nature of micro-targeted political adverts” and quotes the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising recommending that “all factual claims used in political ads be pre-cleared; an existing or new body should have the power to regulate political advertising content.” So government in power would clear the content of ads of challengers? What could possibly go wrong? And micro-targeting of one sort or another is also what enables small communities with specific interests to find each other and organize. Give up your presumptions of the mass.
  • The report argues “there needs to be absolute transparency of online political campaigning.” I agree. Facebook, under pressure, created a searchable database of political ads. I think Facebook should do more and make targeting data public. And I think every — every — other sector of media should match Facebook. Having said that, I still think we need to be careful about setting precedents that might not work so well in countries like, say, Hungry or Turkey, where complete transparency in political advertising and activism could lead to danger for opponents of authoritarian regimes.
  • The committee, like Cairncross, expresses affection for eliminating VAT taxes on digital subscriptions. “This would eliminate the false incentive for news companies against developing more paid-for digital services.” Who said what is the true or false business model? I repeat my concern that government meddling in subscription models could have a deleterious impact on news for the public at large, especially the poor. It would also put more news behind paywalls, with less audience, resulting in less impact from it. (A hidden agenda, perhaps?)
  • “The Government should put pressure on social media companies to publicize any instances of disinformation,” the committee urges. OK. But define “disinformation.” You’ll find it just as challenging as defining “quality news” and “harm.”
  • The committee, like Cairncross, salutes the flag of media literacy. I remain dubious.
  • And the committee, like Cairncross, sometimes reveals its condescension. “Some believe that friction should be reintroduced into the online experience, by both tech companies and by individual users themselves, in order to recognize the need to pause and think before generating or consuming content.” They go so far as to propose that this friction could include “the ability to share a post or a comment, only if the sharer writes about the post; the option to share a post only when it has been read in its entirety.” Oh, for God’s sake: How about politicians pausing and thinking before they speak, creating the hell that is Brexit or Trump?

In the end, I fear all this is hubris: to think that we know what the internet is and what its impact will be before we dare to define and limit the opportunities it presents. I fear the paternalistic unto authoritarian worldview that those with power know better than those without. I fear the unintended — and intended — consequences of all this regulation and protectionism. I trust the public to figure it out eventually. We figured out printing and steam power and the telegraph and radio and television. We will figure out the internet if given half a chance.

And I didn’t even begin to examine what they’re up to in Australia…

Scorched Earth

I just gave a talk in Germany where a prominent editor charged me with being a doomsayer. No, I said, I’m an optimist … in the long run. In the meantime, we in media will see doom and death until we are brutally honest with ourselves about what is not working and cannot ever work again. Then we can begin to build anew and grow again. Then we will have cause for optimism.

Late last year in New York, I spoke with a talented journalist laid off from a digital news enterprise. She warned that there would be more blood on the streets and she was right: In January, more than 2,000 people have lost their jobs at news companies old and now new: Gannett, McClatchy, BuzzFeed, Vice, Verizon. She warned that we are still fooling ourselves about broken models and until we come to terms with that, more blood will flow.

So let us be blunt about what is doomed:

  • Advertising in its current forms is burning out — perhaps even for the lucky ones who still have it.
  • Paywalls will not work for more than a few — and their builders often do not account for the real motives of people who pay and who don’t.
  • There is not enough philanthropy from the rich — or charity from the rest of us — to pay for what is needed.
  • Government support — whether financial or regulatory — is a dangerous folly.

There are no messiahs. There are no devils to blame, either.

  • Google and Facebook did not rob the news industry; they only took up the opportunity we were blind to. Our fate is not their fault. Taking them to the woodshed will produce little but schadenfreude.
  • VCs, private equity, and the public markets are not to blame; like lions killing antelope and vultures eating the rest, they are doing only what nature commanded.

Are we to blame for our own destruction? I confess I used to think that was somewhat true — for the optimist in me believed there had to be something we could do to find opportunity in all this disruption, to rebuild an old industry in a new image, and if we didn’t we were at fault for the result. But perhaps we simply could not see the fallacies in our operating assumptions:

  • Information is a commodity.
  • Content is a commodity.
  • In an age of abundance, commodities are losing businesses.
  • Nobody owes us a damned thing: not technologists, not financiers, not philanthropists, not advertisers, not the public, and certainly not government. Instead, we are in debt to many of them and can’t pay it back.

Maybe there is nothing we could have done to save businesses built on now-outmoded models. Maybe nobody is to blame. Reality sucks until it doesn’t.

I believe we can and must build new models for journalism based on real value, understanding people’s needs and motives so we can serve them. But I’m getting ahead of myself again. I can’t help it: I’m an optimist. Before we can build the new, we must recognize what is past. Only then can we rise from the ashes. That process — when it begins — will not be easy or short. As I am fond of telling anyone who will listen, I believe we are at the start of a long, slow evolution, akin to the start of the Gutenberg Age, as we enter a new and still-unknown age. It’s only 1475 in Gutenberg years. There might be a few peasants’ wars, a Thirty Years War, and a Reformation between us and a Renaissance ahead. No guarantees that there’ll be a Renaissance, either. But there’ll definitely be no resurrection of what was.

Recently, Ben Thompson and Jeremy Littau shared cogent analyses of how we got in this hole. I want to examine why merely adjusting those same strategies will not get us out of it. I want to shift our gaze from the ashes below to a north star above — to optimism about the future — but I don’t think we can do that until we are honest about our present. So let’s examine each of the bullets (to our heads) above.


Mass marketing — that is, volume-based advertising — killed quality and injured trust in media because, as abundance grew and prices fell and desperation rose, every movement and metric was reduced to a click and inevitably a cat and a Kardashian. Programmatic advertising commodifies everything it touches: content, media, consumers, data, and even the products it sells. Personalization via retargeting — those ads that follow you everywhere — is insulting and stupid. (Hey, Amazon: why do you keep advertising things to me you know I bought?)

Advertising ultimately exists to fool people into thinking they want something they hadn’t thought they wanted. Thus every new form of advertising inevitably burns out when customers catch on, when the jig is up. That’s why advertisers always want something new. Clicks at volume worked for Business Insider, Upworthy, and many like them until it no longer did. Native advertising worked for Quartz — which, I think, did the best and least fraudulent job implementing it — until it no longer paid all the bills. So-called influencer marketing sort-of worked until customers learned that even their friends can’t be trusted. Axios is proud that it is breaking even on corporate responsibility advertising —which will work until people remember that some evil empires are all still evil. Facing advertising’s limits, each of these companies is resorting to a paywall. We’ll discuss how well that will work in a minute.

Many years ago — at the start of all this — I said that by definition, advertising is failure. Every maker and every marketer wants to be loved, its products bought because its customers are already sold or because its customers sell its products with honest recommendations. When that doesn’t work, you advertise. The net puts seller and buyer into direct contact and advertisers will explore every possible way to avoid advertising.

Amazon finds another path by exploiting others’ cost structures — manufacturers, marketers, distributors — to arrive at pure sales. Then Amazon can eliminate all those middlemen by making products that require neither brand nor advertising, recommending them to customers based on their behavior and intent (and robots will eventually take care of distribution).

If advertising and brands are diminished, even Google and Facebook may suffer and fall because arbitraging data to intuit intent — like every other advertising business model so far — might be short-lived. I think the definition of “short” might be decades, and so I’m not ready to short their stock (disclosure: I own Google’s). I also expect no end of glee at their pain. My point: The platforms are not invincible.

I think that BuzzFeed was onto something before it pivoted to pivoting. It didn’t sell audience per se but instead sold expertise: We know how to make our shit viral and we can make your shit viral. If we in journalism have any hope of holding onto any scraps of advertising that still exist, I believe we need to think similarly and understand the expertise we could bring to others. I like to think that could be understanding how to serve communities. But first we have to learn how to do that.

The bottom line: Because it enables anyone to speak as an individual, the net kills the idea of the faceless mass and with it mass media and mass marketing and possibly mass manufacturing. It’s over, people. The mass was a myth and the net exposed that.


Not long ago, every time I encountered a paywall for an article I wanted to read, I recorded the annual cost. I stopped after two weeks when the total hit $3,650. NFW. Oh, I know: I’ve been Twitter-scolded along with the rest of the cheap-bastard masses for not comparing the intrinsic, moral worth of a news think piece to a latte. What entitlement it takes for journalists to lecture people on how they spend their own hard-earned money. Scolding is no business strategy.

Yes, at least for some years, some media properties will make money by charging readers for access to content — until the idea of “content” disappears (more on that in a minute) along with the concept of the “mass” and the industry called “advertising.” But let’s be honest about a few things:

  1. Consumer willingness to pay for content is a scarcity and we’ve already likely hit its limits. A recent Reuters Institute study said more than half of surveyed executives vowed paywalls would be their main focus for 2019. The line on the other side of the cash register is going to get mighty crowded.
  2. Much of the content behind many of the paywalls out there is not worth the price charged.
  3. Most of the information in that content is duplicative of what exists elsewhere for less or free.

Paywalls are an attempt to create a false scarcity in an age of abundance. They will work for the few that sell speed (see Bloomberg v. Reuters and also Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys — though time is a diminishing asset) or unique value (which inevitably means a limited audience of people who can make money on that value) or loyalty and quality (yes, the strategy is working wellfor The New York Times because it is the fucking New York Times — and you’re not).

The mistake that many paywallers make is that they don’t understand what might motivate people to pay. I pay for The Washington Post because I think it is the best newspaper in America and because Jeff Bezos gave me a great price. Personally, I pay for the New York Times and The Guardian out of patronage but only one of them is clever enough to realize that (more on that in a minute). You might be paying for social capital or access to journalists or to other members of a community or out of social responsibility. The product, the offering, and the marketing all need to take into account your motive.

The economics of subscriptions and paywalls are never discussed in full. I learned from my first day in the magazine business that you have to spend money in marketing to earn money in subscriptions. I’ve been privy to the subscriber acquisition cost of some news organizations and it is staggering. Yes, some of the fees news orgs are charging are high but the subscriber acquisition cost can be two or three times the cost to the consumer or more. And churn rates are higher than most will admit.

I do think we need to explore more sources of revenue from consumers. At Newmark’s Tow-Knight Center, we have brought together media companies trying commerce. Some companies are selling their own ancillary products — everything from books to wine to cooktops to gravity blankets. High-end media companies are surprised at how much people will spend through them on travel. The Telegraph is making financial services and sports betting a priority. Texas Tribune and others find success in events. I’m in favor of trying all these paths to consumer revenue but each one brings the need for expertise, resources, and risk. As for micropayments: dream on.

Those abandoning advertising — or rather, those abandoned by advertising — often argue for the moral superiority of paywalls. But every revenue source brings moral hazards to beware of, as Jay Rosen explores regarding dependence on readers. In the end, the arguments in favor of paywalls are often fatally tautological: They must be working because everyone is building them. Good luck with that.

There is not enough philanthropy from the rich — or charity from the rest of us

The Reuters Institute survey found that a third of executives expected more largesse from foundations this year. Well, last year, Harvard and Northeastern published a study of foundation support of journalism, tolling up $1.8 billion in grants over six years. Not counting support for education (but thanking those who give it), I calculate that comes to less than $200 million a year. For the sake of comparison, The New York Times’ costs add up to almost $1.5 billion. The grants are a drop in the empty bucket. Foundations can be wonderful but they cannot support all the efforts that think they are worthy. They also tend to have ADD, wanting to support the next new thing. They are not our salvation.

How about wealthy individuals? Depends on the wealthy individual. G’bless Jeff Bezos for bringing innovation to The Washington Post and giving Marty Baron the freedom to excel. It’s nice that Marc Benioff bought Time, though I’m not sure why he did and whether that was the best investment in journalism. Pierre Omidyar is funding ideologically diverse efforts from The Intercept to The Bulwark; good for him. Good for all that. But there are also many bad billionaires. Sugar daddies are not our salvation.

Then what about charity — patronage — from the public? I have been a proponent of membership over paywalls, of creating services that serve the affinities of people and communities. Jay Rosen’s Membership Puzzle Project is helping De Correspondent bring its lessons to the U.S. and key among them is that people give money not for access to content but to support the work of a journalist. I advocated a membership strategy for The Guardian but when its readers said they didn’t want a paywall because they wanted to support The Guardian’s journalism for the good of society, it became evident that the relationship was actually charity or contribution. And it works. The Guardian will finally break even thanks to the generosity of its readers. Is this for everyone? No, because everyone is not The Guardian. I give to The Guardian. I consider my payments to The New York Times patronage. I give to Talking Points Memo simply because I want to support its work. But just as with subscriptions, there is a finite pool of generosity. Charity won’t save us.

Government support — whether financial or regulatory — is a dangerous folly

I could go on and on about the lessons learned from regulatory protectionism in Europe but I won’t because I already did.

Should government support journalism in the U.S.? I have a two-word response to that.

Enough said.

So now onto the devils who get the blame for ruining news. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom I greatly admire and often agree with, identifies what she says are the biggest threats to journalism.

The platforms often — more often every day — deserve criticism for their behavior[Full disclosure: I raised money from Facebook for my J-school but we are independent of them and I receive no money personally from any platform.]

But their success is not the cause of our failure. As is often the case, Stratechery’s Ben Thompson said it better than I could:

While I know a lot of journalists disagree, I don’t think Facebook or Google did anything untoward: what happened to publishers was that the Internet made their business models — both print advertising and digital advertising — fundamentally unviable. That Facebook and Google picked up the resultant revenue was effect, not cause. To that end, to the extent there is concern about how dominant these companies are, even the most extreme remedies (like breakups) would not change the fact that publishers face infinite competition and have uncompetitive advertising offerings.

Optimist that I am, I still think there is reason to work with the platforms because the public we serve is often there and because I believe together we should share what I now define as journalism’s mission: to convene communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation. That would be in the enlightened self-interest of the platforms. But they have no obligation to pay media companies and we have learned the hard way that depending on platforms for stability appears impossible as they experiment and proudly fail with new models.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, a brilliant and harsh critic of the platforms, has argued to me that it is foolish to expect a Google to behave as anything other than a company, in the interest of shareholder return. That realism applies as well to the venture capitalists who sometimes invest in media and, lord knows, the hedge fund and private equity organizations that capitalize on news media’s debt and weakness. We can decry them all we want. I’m just saying that it’s foolish to think that we can change their ways via badgering, begging, or regulation. I strongly believe that innovation in news will require investment but we should enter into those arrangements with eyes wide open, recognizing that unless we can promise a return on investment, we should not knock on their doors. That return will come only when we concentrate on the real value of what we do.

Information is a commodity. Content is a commodity.

Our value does lie in the information we provide. But that is also our problem because information is a commodity. I tried to explain this in Geeks Bearing Gifts:

Information is less valuable in the market because it flows freely. Once a bit of information, a fact, appears in a newspaper, it can be repeated and spread, citizen to citizen, TV anchor to audience: “Oyez, oyez, oyez” shouts the town crier. “The king is dead. Long live the king. Pass it on.” Information itself cannot and must not be owned. Under copyright law, a creator cannot protect ownership of underlying facts or knowledge, only of their treatment. That is, you cannot copyright the fact that the Higgs boson was discovered at CERN in 2012, you can copyright only your treatment of that information: your cogent backgrounder or natty graphic that explains WTF a boson is. A well-informed society must protect and celebrate the easy sharing of information even if that does support freeloaders like TV news, which build businesses on the repetition of information others have uncovered. Society cannot find itself in a position in which information is property to be owned, for then the authorities will tell some people — whether they are academics or scientists or students or citizens — what they are not allowed to know because they didn’t buy permission to know it. Therein lies a fundamental flaw in the presumption that the public should and will pay for access to information — a fundamental flaw in the business model of journalism. I’m not saying that information wants to be free. I agree that information often is expensive to gather. Instead I am saying that the mission of journalism is to inform society by unlocking and spreading information. Journalism frees information.

In news, we copy and rewrite each other because our mass-media business models make us fill pages with content as inexpensively as possible (rewriting is cheaper than reporting — see The Hill) so we can place an ad and get a pageview and get a penny. What we complain Google and Facebook do — taking advantage of the commodification of information — is the basis of much of our own business model. We have hoisted ourselves on our own petard.

I believe information will remain the core of the public demand for and the value of journalism. But we cannot build our business models on that alone.

I also believe that we are not in the content business — and that’s a good thing because it, too, is a commodity, and in an age of abundance, commodities are bad businesses. I think we too often try to save the wrong business.

So what business are we in? Will I allow a bit of optimism at the end of all this doomsaying? Can I point up to a north star?

I return to my definition of journalism, with a debt to James Carey, whom I quoted at length in my recent defense of tweeting. Journalism exists to be of service to the public conversation. What does that look like? How will that serve society? How will it be sustained? I’m not sure.

I have long argued that local journalism needs to rise from communities. I thought that could take the form of hyperlocal blogs but I was wrong because I was still thinking of local journalism in terms of content. I confessed my error here, where I also acknowledged the difficulty — perhaps the impossibility — of building a new house while the old one is burning down around existing newsrooms. Is it possible to turn a content-based, information-based business into one that is built on and begins with the public conversation and is based on service? I don’t know.

I think I’ve seen a bare sprout of what this one model might look like rising from the ashes in the form of Spaceship Media’s plans for local journalism. Spaceship does just what I say journalism should do: convene communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation. So far, it has done that in collaboration with newsrooms, notably Advance’s in Alabama, learning how to rebuild trust between journalist and public. I recently spoke with Spaceship’s cofounder, Eve Pearlman, about how journalists convening, listening to, serving, and valuing local conversation could be a service and a business. Above I said that we could follow BuzzFeed’s lead by selling a skill and I wish that skill were serving communities. I hope Spaceship could teach us that. So I will watch its work with interest and enthusiasm. But I want to be careful and not present that as the salvation of journalism, only as one small experiment that could begin to teach us to rethink what journalism can and should be, not based on our old presumptions of mass media but on our essential value.

In the meantime, I think it is vital — as that unemployed journo told me on the streets of New York — that we be brutally honest with ourselves about our failures so we can learn from them. I hope that conversation continues.

Journalism is the conversation. The conversation is journalism.

An illustration of Edward Lloyd’s coffee house, which served as a headquarters for marine underwriters. The business eventually evolved into Lloyd’s of London insurance company.

I am sorely disappointed in The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo, CNN’s Brian Stelter, and other journalists who these days are announcing to the world, using the powerful platforms they have, that they think journalists should “disengage” from the platform for everyone else, Twitter.

No. It is the sacred duty of journalists to listen to the public they serve. It is then their duty to bring journalistic value — reporting, facts, explanation, context, education, connections, understanding, empathy, action, options— to the public conversation. Journalism is that conversation. Democracy is that conversation.

In a moment, I will quote from the late James Carey’s eloquent lessons on the primacy of the conversation in journalism. But first I want to observe, as I’ve written before, that these journalists’ pronouncements come from a position of extreme privilege. Manjoo has a column, Stelter a show where they can expose their worries to the world. If you are an African-American who is shopping or barbecuing or eating lunch or going into your own home when a white person calls the police on you, you do not have a newsroom of journalists who look like you who will tell your story because they, too, have lived it. The outlet you have is a hashtag on Twitter. These stories are now, finally, making it into mainstream media only because #livingwhileblack exists as a tool for those forever unrepresented and unserved by mass media.When journalists delete, dismiss, or disengage from Twitter or Facebook or YouTube or Instagram or Reddit or blogs, they turn their backs on the people who finally — like the journalists — have a printing press to call their own. For too long — since Habermas’ alleged birth of the public sphere in the coffee houses and salons of London and Paris — that sphere has excluded too many people, whom social media finally can include. Listen to them.

In fairness to Manjoo, he does not suggest killing Twitter entirely. “Instead, post less, lurk more,” he advises. No. Two problems with that: It means that journalists continue to rob and exploit the stories of people for their articles without giving them the respect of conversation and collaboration. And it means that journalists are not doing what they can to bring journalism to the public conversation where it occurs — which they can finally do, thanks to the internet. I learned this at Vidcon: In some cases, we need to remake news as social tokens packed with fact and context that people can share in their own conversations. The public conversation is indeed in need of help. We cannot help that conversation by disengaging from it.

Manjoo also suggests, rightly, that journalists get their acts together and not be jerks and bozos online. Who can argue with that? But to be clear, that is entirely up to journalists — and everyone on Twitter. I do not subscribe to the technological determinism and moral panic that blames the tool. “Twitter is ruining American journalism,” says Manjoo. No, journalists are responsible for the state of American journalism. They have no one to blame but themselves when they jump on a story too soon with unconfirmed information and rash conclusions, when they insist on joining in with their own needless and repetitive hot takes, when they match snark for snark.When I’m a jerk on Twitter it’s because I’m being a jerk, not because Twitter made me on. “Everything about Twitter’s interface encourages a mind-set antithetical to journalistic inquiry,” Manjoo argues. “It prizes image over substance and cheap dunks over reasoned debate, all the while severely abridging the temporal scope of the press.” No, I find plenty of very smart people on Twitter who share information and perspective and wisdom. If you haven’t found them, you haven’t tried hard enough; you haven’t done your reporting. A poor craftsman blames his Twitter.

In the discussion about this over the last week or so, I’ve seen people responding to my arguments by saying that Twitter is not representative of the population. Well, neither is The New York Times. I’ve seen them complain that Twitter has assholes. Well, so does the world; don’t follow them. And I’ve seen them say that Twitter is too small to bother with. That is an outmoded, mass-media worldview — inspired by the commercial demands of advertisers — that values and recognizes only scale. Stop thinking of people as masses; start recognizing them as individuals and members of communities and you will begin to appreciate the people you can meet, hear, and learn from on Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and in tools not yet imagined, tools that connect people (which is the value of the net) rather than merely manufacture content (which is the value of old, dying, mass media).

Now I’d like to call class to order and invite the spirit of the too-soon-departed Columbia professor, James Carey from his essay, “A Republic, If You Can Keep It”: Liberty and Public Life in the Age of Glasnost. (Sadly, that link is behind a paywall. I heartily recommend the book James Carey: A Critical Reader,especially including Jay Rosen’s introduction to this essay.) Here Carey teaches us about the true nature of journalism and democracy.

But I believe we must begin from the primacy of conversation. It implies social arrangements less hierarchical and more egalitarian than its alternatives. While people often dry up and shy away from the fierceness of argument, disputation, and debate, and while those forms of talk often bring to the surface the meanness and aggressiveness that is our second nature, conversation implies the most natural and unforced, unthreatening, and most satisfying of arrangements.

A press that encourages the conversation of [the public’s] culture is the equivalent of an extended town meeting. However, if the press sees its role as limited to informing whoever happens to turn up at the end of the communication channel, it explicitly abandons its role as an agency for carrying on the conversation of the culture.

That is to say, if the press serves only those who come to its destinations and pay to get past its paywalls then it is serving only a tiny elite. Talk about echo chambers, that is an echo chamber.

Carey continues even more sternly:

A press independent of the conversation of culture, or existing in the absence of such a conversation, is likely to be, in practical terms, whatever the value of the right the press represents, a menace to public life and an effective politics. The idea of the press as a mass medium, independent of, disarticulated from, the conversation of the culture, inherently contradicts the goal of creating an active remembering public. Public memory can be recorded by but cannot be transmitted through the press as an institution. The First Amendment, to repeat, constitutes us as a society of conversationalists, of people who talk to one another, who resolve disputes with one another through talk. This is the foundation of the public realm, the inner meaning of the First Amendment, and the example the people of Eastern Europe were quite inadvertently trying to teach us. The “public” is the God term of the press, the term without which the press does not make any sense. Insofar as the press is grounded, it is grounded in the public. The press justifies itself in the name of the public. It exists, or so it is said, to inform the public, to serve as the extended eyes and ears of the public. The press is the guardian of the public interest and protects the public’s right to know. The canons of the press originate in and flow from the relationship of the press to the public.

This is about respecting more than journalism. It is about maintaining democracy:

Republics require conversation, often cacophonous conversation, for they should be noisy places. That conversation has to be informed, of course, and the press has a role in supplying that information. But the kind of information required can be generated only by public conversation; there is simply no substitute for it. We have virtually no idea what it is we need to know until we start talking to someone.Conversation focuses our attention, it engages us, and in the wake of conversation we have need not only of the press but also of the library. From this view of the First Amendment, the task of the press is to encourage the conversation of the culture — not to preempt it or substitute for it or supply it with information as a seer from afar. Rather, the press maintains and enhances the conversation of the culture, becomes one voice in that conversation, amplifies the conversation outward, and helps it along by bringing forward the information that the conversation itself demands.

We say we in the press are guardians of the First Amendment as we are guarded by it. Carey tells us what the First Amendment really means:

We value, or so we say, the First Amendment because it contributes, in Thomas Emerson’s formulation, four things to our common life. It is a method of assuring our own self-fulfillment; it is a means of attaining the truth; it is a method of securing participation of members of society in political decision making; and it is a means of maintaining a balance between stability and change.

This is why I value social media and how it gives us the ability to hear people too long not heard. This is why I started a degree in Social Journalism at the Newmark J-School, where my colleague Carrie Brown and our students constantly explore new definitions, new obligations, and new opportunities for journalism that the net enables. This is why I so admire Spaceship Media, a journalistic startup that embodies my revised definition and mission of journalism: to convene communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation. This is why I argue for a post-content, relationship-based strategy for the future of journalism. It starts with listening.

Manjoo ends declaring: “Twitter will ruin us, and we should stop.” No, that attitude of snobbery and willful ignorance of the world around us and moral panic about technology is what will la-la-la the news business into oblivion.

But don’t listen to me. Go to Twitter and Facebook and elsewhere and find new people you don’t know who experience things you don’t experience who have perspectives you don’t have and listen to them. That is journalism.

Carey concludes:

We must turn to the task of creating a public realm in which a free people can assemble, speak their minds, and then write or tape or otherwise record the extended conversation so that others, out of sight, might see it. If the established press wants to aid the process, so much the better. But if, in love with profits and tied to corporate interests, the press decides to sit out public life, we shall simply have to create a space for citizens and patriots by ourselves.

He wrote that in 1991, 15 years before Twitter was created because the press didn’t create it and someone else had to.

We Have Met the Problem. Guess Who?

Here is chapter I contributed to the Hackademic 2018 book, Anti-Social Media?: The Impact on Journalism and Society. I’ve used various ideas in this in other posts recently. I’m leaving the British  spelling because it just might make me seem smarter. 

In all the urgent debate about regulating, investigating, and even breaking up internet companies, we have lost sight of the problem we are trying to confront: not technology but instead human behaviour on it, the bad acts of some (small) number of fraudsters, propagandists, bigots, misogynists, and jerks.

Computers do not threaten and harass people; people do. Hate speech is not created by algorithms but by humans. Technology did not interfere with the American election; another government did.* Yet we demand that technology companies cure what ails us as if technology were the disease.

When before have we required corporations to monitor and mediate human behaviour? Isn’t that the job — the very definition — of government: to define and enforce the limits of acceptable acts? If not government, then won’t parents, schools, clergy, therapists, or society as a whole — in its process of negotiating norms — fill the role? But all that takes time. In the face of the speed and scale of the invention and dissemination not only of technology but of its manipulation, government has no idea what to do. So in their search for someone to blame, government outsource fault and responsibility, egged on by media (whose schadenfreude constitutes a conflict of interest, as publishers wish to witness their new competitors’ comeuppance).

Why would we ever expect or want corporations to doctor us? Indeed, isn’t manipulation of our speech and psyches by technologists what critics fear most? Some argue this is the platforms’ problem because it’s the platforms that screwed us up. I disagree. It’s not as if before the net the world was a choir of angels. To argue that the internet addicts the connected masses, makes them stupid, turns them into trolls, and transforms them into agents of society’s ruin is elitist and fundamentally insulting, denying people their agency, their intelligence, their goodwill or lack thereof. The internet is not ruining humankind. Humankind is still trying to figure out what the internet can and should be.

It is true that internet technology has provided bad actors with new means of manipulation and exploitation in the pursuit of money and lately political gain or demented psychology. It’s also true that the technologists were too optimistic and naive about how their powerful tools could be misused — or rather, used but for bad ends. I agree that Facebook, Google, Twitter, and company must exercise more responsibility in anticipating and forestalling manipulation, in understanding the impact they have, in being transparent about that impact, and in collaborating with others to do better. There’s no doubt that the culture of Silicon Valley is too isolated and hubristic and must learn to listen, to value and empower diversity, to move fast but think first. Do I absolve them of responsibility? No. Do I want them to do more? Yes.

The terms of the conversation

But what precisely do we expect of them? For a project underwritten by the How Institute for Society, founded by Dov Seidman, I interviewed and convened discussions with people I respect as leaders, visionaries, and responsible voices in journalism, technology, law, and ethics. What struck me is that I heard no consensus on the definition of the problems to be solved, let alone the solutions. There is general head-shaking and tsk-tsking about the state of the internet and the platforms that now operate much of it. But dig deeper in search of an answer and you’ll find yourself in a maze.

At Google’s 2018 European journalism unconference, Newsgeist, I proposed a session asking, “What could Facebook do for news?” Some journalists in the room argued that Facebook must eliminate bad content and some argued that Facebook must make no judgments about content, good or bad. Sometimes, they were the same people, not hearing themselves making opposing arguments.

In my interviews, Professor Jay Rosen of New York University told me that we do not yet have the terms for the discussion about what we expect technology companies to do. Where are the norms, laws, or regulations that precisely spell out their responsibility? Professor Emily Bell of the Columbia School of Journalism said that capitalism and free speech are proving to be a toxic combination. Data scientist Deb Roy of the MIT Media Lab said capitalistic enterprises are finely tuned for simple outcomes and so he doesn’t believe a platform designed for one result can be fixed to produce another, but he hopes innovators will find new opportunities there. Technologist Yonatan Zunger, formerly of Google, argued that computer scientists must follow the example of engineering forebears — e.g., civil engineers — to recognise and account for the risks their work can bring. Entrepreneur John Borthwick, founder of Betaworks, proposed self-regulation to forestall government regulation. Seidman the ethicist insisted that neutrality is no longer an option and that technology companies must provide moral leadership. And philosopher David Weinberger argued that we are past trying to govern according to principles as society is so divided it cannot agree on those principles. I saw Weinberger proven right in the discussion at Newsgeist, in panels I convened at theInternational Journalism Festival, and in media. As Rosen says, we cannot agree on where to start the conversation.

The limits of openness

In the web’s early days, I was as much a dogmatist for openness as I am for the First Amendment. But I have come to learn — as the platforms have — that complete openness invites manipulation and breeds trolls. Google, Facebook, and Twitter — like news media themselves — argue that they are merely mirrors to society, reflecting the world’s ills. Technology’s and media’s mirrors may indeed be straight and true. But society warps and cracks itself to exploit these platforms. The difference between yesterday’s manipulation via media (PR and propaganda) and today’s via technology (from trolls to terrorists) is scale; the internet allows everyone who is connected to speak — which I take as a good — but that also means that anyone can become a thief, a propagandist, or a tormentor at a much lower cost and with greater access than mass media permitted. The platforms have no choice but to understand, measure, reveal, and compensate for that manipulation. They are beginning to do that.

Good can come of this crisis, trumped up or not. I now see the potential for a flight to quality on the net. After the 2016 elections and the rising furore about the role of the platforms in nations’ nervous breakdowns, Google’s head of search engineering, Ben Gomes, said that thenceforth the platform would account for the authority, reliability, and quality of sources in search ranking. In a search result for a query such as ‘Is climate change real?’ Google now sides with science. Twitter has recognised at last that it must account for its role in the health of the public conversation and so it sought help from researchers to define good discourse.

For its part, Facebook downgraded the prominence of what it broadly considered public (as opposed to social) content, which included news. Now it is trying to bring back and promote quality news. At The Newmark J-Schools Tow-Knight Center at CUNY, I am working on a project to aggregate signals of quality (or lack thereof) from the many disparate efforts, from the Trust Project to the Credibility Coalition and many others. We will provide this data to both platforms and advertisers to inform their decisions about ranking and buying so they may stop supporting disinformation and instead support quality news. [Disclosure: This work and that of the News Integrity Initiative, which I started at CUNY, are funded in part by Facebook but operate with full independence and I receive no compensation from any platform.]

Are these acts of self-regulation by the platforms sufficient? Of course, not. But I argue we must view this change in temporal context: We are only 24 years past the introduction of the commercial web. If the net turns out to be as disruptive as movable type, then in Gutenberg terms that puts us in the year 1474, years before Luther’s birth and print-sparked revolution, decades before the book took on the post-scribe structure we know now, centuries before printing and steam technology combined to create the idea of the mass.

Causes for concern

We don’t know what the net is yet. That is why I worry about premature regulation of it. I fear we are operating today on vague impressions of problems rather than on journalistic and academic evidence of the scale of the problems and the harm they are causing. I challenge you to look at your Facebook feed and show me the infestation of nazis there. Where is the data regarding real harm?

I worry, too, about the unintended consequences of well-intentioned regulation. In Europe, government moves aimed at challenging the power of the platforms have ended up giving them yet more power. The so-called right to be forgotten has put Google in the uneasy position of rewriting and erasing history, a perilous authority to hold. Germany’s Leistungsschutzrecht (ancillary copyright) gave Google the power to set the terms of the market in links to news. Spain’s more aggressive link tax led to the exit of Google News from the country. I shudder to think what a pending EU-wide version of each law will do. Germany’s hate-speech law, the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz or NetzDG law, is all but killing satire there and requires the devotion of resources to killing crap, not rewarding quality. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will leave Google and Facebook relatively unscathed — as they have the resources to deal with its complex requirements — but some American publishers have cut off European readers, balkanising the web. Anticipated ePrivacy regulation will go even farther and I fear an extreme privacy regime will obstruct a key strategy for sustaining journalism — providing greater relevance and value to people we know as individuals and members of communities and gaining new revenue through membership and contribution as a result. Thus this regulation could artificially extend the life of outmoded mass media and the paternalistic idea of the mass.

I worry mostly that we may be entering into a full-blown moral panic, with technology — internet platforms — as the enemy. Consider Ashley Crossman’s definition: “A moral panic is a widespread fear, most often an irrational one, that someone or something is a threat to the values, safety, and interests of a community or society at large. Typically, a moral panic is perpetuated by news media, fuelled by politicians, and often results in the passage of new laws or policies that target the source of the panic. In this way, moral panic can foster increased social control.” Sound familiar? To return to the lessons of Gutenberg’s age, let us recall that Erasmus feared what books would do to society. “To what corner of the world do they not fly, these swarms of new books?” he complained. “The very multitude of them is hurtful to scholarship, because it creates a glut and even in good things satiety is most harmful.” But we managed.

When I was invited to contribute this chapter, I was asked to write “in defence of Facebook.” With respect, that sets the conversation at the wrong level, at the institutional level: Journalism vs. Facebook. Thus we miss the trees for the forest, the people for the platforms. No matter what we in journalism think of Facebook, Google, or Twitter as companies, we must acknowledge that the public we serve is there and we need to take our journalism to them where they are. We must take advantage of the opportunity the net provides to see the public not as a mass but as a web of communities. We cannot do any of this alone and need to work with platforms to fulfill what I now see as journalism’s real job: to convene communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation. If society is a polarised world at war with itself — red vs. blue, white vs. black, insider vs. outsider, 99% vs. 1% — we perhaps should begin by asking how we in journalism led society there.

* I expect someone on Twitter to respond to this paragraph with a picture of the bumper sticker declaring that guns don’t kill people; people do. The sentence structures may be parallel but the logic is not. Guns are created for one purpose: to kill. The internet was created for purposes yet unknown. We are negotiating its proper and improper uses and until we do — as we are learning — the improper will out.

A Rising Moral Panic

This is just what I fear: fear itself. See that exchange above. Nick Thompson, the very impressive editor-in-chief of Wired, touted a column by one of his writers who idly wondered whether the #10YearChallenge meme could be a conspiracy created by Facebook to get us chumps to provide it with photos and data to enable facial recognition over time.

Just maybe. What if?

Except that’s ridiculous, on its face. At its public I/O developers conference more than three years ago, Google demonstrated that it could identify the same person in photos from infancy to elderly. And Facebook hardly needs two random photos from a smattering of people when it has huge stores of dated photos of people who identify themselves. (Disclosure: I raised money for my school from Facebook but we are fully independent and I receive no funds personally from any platform.)

pointed out this logic on Twitter, and Nick — who, I want to emphasize again, has done wonders with Wired and made it better than it has been in years and who is often on the same, sane, calm side of the debate over #technopanic with me — immediately acknowledged in response that Facebook said it did not start the #10YearChallenge meme (reporting that, in my opinion, would have best been done before the column was posted). So, to quote the immortal Emily Litella:

Nonetheless, Nick’s original tweet to his 100k followers lives on and we know that people reach conclusions from a tweet or a headline without always reading on. Then today Keith Olbermann repeats this to his more than 1 million Twitter followers. What if? becomes WTF!! becomes OMG!!! A meme is born, a doubt is raised, paranoia is spawned. What’s my fear? Regulation will follow and the internet will suffer. See, as one of many examples, this tweet calling all regulators.

See also this presentation I gave to Munich Media Days on the unintended consequences of regulation. In a nutshell: Regulators and courts wanted to take power away from the platforms but ended up giving them more.

  • Germany’s ancillary copyright (Leistungsschutzrecht) was intended to make Google pay for snippets but gave Google greater negotiating power because publishers needed the eggs.
  • With the stricter Spanish link tax, publishers cut off their nose to spite their face and Google cut off Google News and with it much traffic to them.
  • The right to be forgotten court ruling gave Google the power of God (a power it did not want) to decide what should and should not be remembered and set a precedent Europe should beware of rewriting and erasing history.
  • Germany’s NetzDG hate-speech law gives Facebook similar power and all but kills satire in Germany. (I provide the straight line, you provide the joke.)
  • Europe’s sweeping privacy regulation, GDPR, did good things but also balkanized the news web with thousands of US publishers cutting off European readers and made expensive requirements that are burdens for small companies in Europe but are nothing to Google and Facebook, which could end up being even more competitive as a result.
  • And now we have the the noxious new EU copyright law with Articles 11 and 13 threatening our ability to quote and share what was formerly known as content and now is known as conversation.

That is what I fear. The atmosphere created by paranoid memes such as the one I write about here — and it’s just one and one of the more minor of many examples — empowers media to raise alarms, which empowers politicians to pass more such legislation.

Am I opposed to all regulation? No, of course not. Every human activity on the internet is already subject to law and regulation and it’s human activity — lies, fraud, manipulation, hate, misogyny — that is causing us trouble today, not so much the underlying technology. It is too soon to say that we know what the internet is and what its impact will be and so it is too soon to define and limit and regulate it as if we can be sure of the consequences of our actions. We risk cutting off opportunities we cannot anticipate, especially from people who were never well-represented and served by the old power structures.

Thanks to research I’m doing lately, I just reread James Dewar’s prescient 1998 RAND paper, The Information Age and the Printing Press. Learning lessons from Gutenberg’s disruption, Dewar sees parallels to the disruption we face now. “The future of the information age will be dominated by unintended consequences,” he says. “It will be decades before we see the full effects of the information age.” I might argue that could be centuries. He concludes: “The above factors combine to argue for: a) keeping the Internet unregulated, and b) taking a much more experimental approach to information policy.” He cautions: “This is speculation of the highest order.”

I emailed Dr. Dewar and he said that two decades on he still thinks its too early to say what the internet’s impact is or even what the internet is. I agree. In his paper, Dewar warns: “Countries that failed to take advantage of the printing press fell behind Europe. Those that strictly suppressed the printing press … were eclipsed on the world stage. Even in Europe countries that tried to suppress ‘dangerous’ aspects of the printing press suffered. This strongly suggests that the advantages of the printing press outweighed the disadvantages. Further, it suggests that, in retrospect, it was more important to explore the upside of the technology than to protect against the downside.”

Scholars Elizabeth Eisenstein and Adrian Johns and many others have debated about the printing press and technological determinism and thus about its alleged impact. Six centuries from now scholars will feud about the same questions regarding our networked age. At this moment, we are arguing about that impact of the net on our daily lives. Some have said to me that this fuss about the #10YearChallenge meme is helpful because people are talking about the issues at hand.

I have one response: Let that debate be based on facts and evidence, not on baseless provocations and what-if worries, which fuel a moral panic that comes to blame all our troubles on technology and assume malign motive for every action the technologists take. Journalists do not have license to relax their standards of fact and evidence and should be informing the debate, not fueling the panic.

Just to show you how fearless I am, I went into Flickr to save my photos from ages past and found this one of me 10 years ago. I look like a dork. Now Facebook, Google, and every one of you knows that. And no one is surprised.