Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard's Berkman Center where I'm a fellow, and currently a professor at Oxford, has written an article titled Dodging the Internet Censor. He argues that Western news organizations should build peer-to-peer networks that help people access their stories from countries where the Internet is subject to heavy government censorship. News organizations have been covering lots of stories about censorship in authoritarian countries, and reporting how various internet geeks have found "hacks" to get around censorship. But JZ (as we call him in Berkmania) points out that news org's have not actively tried to use any of those clever circumvention technologies to fight online censorship of their own news reporting by authoritarian governments. An excerpt:
Western media outlets have covered this story with great interest. Yet they apparently fail to realise that these peer-to-peer technologies have the potential to "decensor" the news for more people in countries like China. Peer-to-peer technologies make filtering more difficult, because they make nearly any consumer of information part of the process of transmitting it. For example, news organisations could conclude deals with other companies to ensure that uncensored reports are echoed from one free server to the next. That would defy Beijing to filter the entire internet if it wants to eliminate content. But news organisations operate as businesses, and defying powerful governments can be a bad business strategy.
That is why there has been so little rebellion among media companies when authoritarian governments threaten journalists, editors and publishers. It also explains why journalists in those countries have so often bent over backwards to apologise for individual transgressions, rather than stand in defiance.
But news organisations could reach many more people if they worked to circumvent internet filtering instead of passively relying on those inside the firewall to figure out how to reach beyond blocked sites on their own. Doing so might even make good business sense. Building a creative digital distribution system that eludes the censors would help news organisations establish and enlarge their markets.
That would be wonderful. But will any news organizations do this? Because doing so would require them to free their content from behind paid firewalls and to let it be accessed and passed on via websites they don't own or control. I e-mailed JZ with the following thoughts:
...you know, the thing is, most Western journalists don't even really consider the fact - certainly aren't thinking about the implications of, or pushing to change the fact - that their journalistic works aren't even freely accessible to their own countrymen for very long. As you know, after two weeks or so most news companies (with a few enlightened exceptions) still put their stories behind a paid firewall. Thus it becomes very difficult for these journalistic works to remain part of the public discourse online unless they are heavily excerpted (pushing the boundaries of "fair use") or reproduced in full (in technical copyright violation) on various blogs and nonprofit websites. Journalists tend to hand in their stories and think shockingly little what happens next or whether there's a more socially useful or effective way for their journalism to be delivered to the public. (..or whether their company's business model is capable of supporting a more socially responsible mode of sharing their journalism with the public.)
If news organizations were to participate in such p2p journalism-sharing systems as you propose (and I agree it would be a great boon to freedom of speech if they did), they would first have to free their content in perpetuity and forget trying to charge for it. There's also the question of whether they would lose ad revenue by doing this - seems they probably would. Do we now have a situation in which a for-profit news business model is no longer capable of maximizing free speech - and may perhaps be helping to limit free speech?
Had I participated in such a p2p scheme while working for CNN so that more Chinese people could have seen my stories I would most definitely have been ordered to stop or have been fired. It would have been considered a violation of CNN's IPR, violation of agreements with advertisers and cable distributors, and various other commercial commitments, let alone whatever probs it might have caused with the Chinese govt. Sadly, don't see too sign that my former employer's thinking on such issues or the thinking of most other news companies has changed so significantly in the past three years that they would be willing to entertain your idea. Though I would love to be proven wrong.
JZ replied (with permission to blog his response):
It's tough for individual journalists to make the call to circulate their own work and not upset their employers, just as it'd likely be copyright infringement for members of the public to copy news articles they see and put them wholesale into p2p circulation. But of course the news organizations could themselves do it, and I think it needn't further harm the already-ailing business models that put the content behind pay-per-view firewalls after a few days. That's because it's still modestly inconvenient to find and download material from p2p networks. Since news articles are text they're conveniently small -- no long download times -- but search is trickier, since most p2p engines still go on file titles rather than on file contents. And, drawing from some music industry counter-tactics, one could even see some authoritarian governments swamping p2p networks with decoy files -- perhaps going further to be among the p2p sources of them, to track down those who download the files with provocative filenames.
That's why I see the current p2p technologies as a start but not a finish. They evolved either as focused ways of addressing the demand for music and movies (where searching only by title can work), and as ways of moving big files without causing congestion (e.g. bittorrent). With a little effort, major newspapers could band together, perhaps including some foundation support and participation from the likes of the Open Society Institute, and create a p2p distribution method more honed to this particular problem, and more sensitive to protecting IP addresses as people search and download. We've seen networks like Tor now packaged into easy-to-use browsers-on-a-USB-stick like Torpark; this is a natural evolutionary step. The biggest barrier here is not technology or copyright or even the economics of the news business, but the philosophical step to believe that strategies for collectively disseminating news against official resistance is as central to twenty-first century journalism as collecting and creating it under hostile circumstances.
That would indeed be a huge step. Are news organizations prepared to stand up and fight for free speech? I replied:
I totally agree with your last sentence. I agree that if one defines the purpose of journalism as serving the public discourse with information, it is essential that news organizations do something like that.
However if one is an organization whose priorities are driven by the need to boost circulation, ratings and share price, I could see how the heads of most news organizations - especially those run by multinationals whose primary purpose is not news - would find it too risky a prospect with no return-on-investment upside. Call me cynical. I am very cynical about the news biz. I would love if some news organizations would prove me wrong, though. Maybe the BBC and some others with a less bottom-line and more public-service mission could lead the way.
In the event that some news organizations might be willing to try something like this, I asked JZ if he'd help them do it. He said "sure!"
Any takers out there??