Friday, August 21, 2009

The end of free Internet news?

Rupert Murdoch and others have decided it is time to end free news content  on the Web. One of the reasons that someone like Murdoch could make such a proposition is that he admittedly knows nothing about the Internet or how it works. I think there is no way at all to really end free content and that paid content will never be able to compete with free. Consider firstly all the legitimate primary sources of internet news that are always going to be free: Government Web sites, government broadcasters and NGOs. Governments and NGOs want you to see their content. A large part of international news consists of refurbished government press agency announcements or NGO press releases. "The prominent NGO Birdwatchers International has relased a new study showing..." and the rest of the item just quotes the information in the press release.
Now consider also the question of copyright and "fair use." A blogger subscribes to a paid service and copies the main content of an article to their Web log. As long as they comment on the article, and they are not a for-profit organization, it is "fair use for educational purposes." Attempts to stop them will be stymied because they will be labelled attempts to stifle freedom of the press.
The claim of publishers that they produce "quality content" that people will want to pay for is also highly dubious. During the Iraq war and the Second Lebanon war and other such events, the press often published government or terrorist propaganda indiscriminately. A CNN report described how dramatic footage of amulances rushing to the rescue was generously faked by Hezbollah for the benefit of the press. A Reuters photo of smoke over Beirut was shown by a blogger to a fake, and bloggers showed many other instances in which the commercial press was fooled by biased stringers or interested parties into passing off fabrications as fact - the French footage of the alleged killing of Muhamad al Dura was one such instance. Consider also stories like Sy Hersh's allegations of an imminent US attack on Iran that never materialized. These stories appeared over and over, though they had no basis in fact. If you want to lie to me for free that's fine, but I won't pay for it. The same was true for Judith Miller's NYT stories about WMD in Iraq.
There are so many ways for good free content to get to the Web and be available to all, that it is really doubtful that many people will want to pay for it, especially considering the poor quality of a lot of commercial journalism.
Ami Isseroff