Internet Content: Free Doesn’t Mean Costless

The recent announcement that News Corp and Microsoft were in discussion over a deal where Microsoft would pay News Corp for removing itself from Google’s indexing, stirred up the internet.

The most vociferous are the “information-wants-to-be-free” crowd, most of whom are to young to have known a world without the web, who are genuinely confused about the nature of Google Inc. They see searchability by Google as equivalent to participation in democratic society—and any resistance to offering up one’s content to exploitation by Google Inc. as resistance to the natural openness of interactive media and bottom-up civilization.

Douglas Rushkoff at The Daily Beast shares my point of view on the matter and argues it better than I ever would:

As an early cyberpunk, I see their point—as well as the confused logic informing it. Greedy monopolists controlled media for a long time, and formed huge conglomerates with interests beyond providing people with the content they needed. Media companies moved into the business of delivering eyeballs to sponsors, instead of content to readers. Recording companies bilked the artists who created the music. Taking content for free seems justified when it is being taken from big bad companies. And making content ourselves, as well as distributing it freely to one another, is now correctly understood as a basic human right.

But we can’t confuse our actual right to make and distribute content freely with Google’s perceived right to freely exploit the content everyone makes. Google is not in this for the fun of it; they make money off their searches. By making our content available to Google, we make Google’s searches more valuable. If we don’t feel our content is being made more valuable in the exchange, then we don’t have to accept this searchability as some precondition of Internet citizenship.

Another aspect of the “information-wants-to-be-free” crowd is that they don’t seem to realize that Google is the only one making revenue out of the current model:

Advertising is certainly one option. But when Google becomes the meta-frame around all the content in everyone else’s publications, then Google’s ads are the only ones that really matter. Google’s ads are the ones that show up when we are searching for content, and open to suggestion. That’s the Internet equivalent of the moment we are flipping through the magazine—not the time we are spending when we deep inside an article and oblivious to the extraneous information beckoning from beyond its borders. Once we have clicked on the article and are brought to the interior of the publication on offer, we go into content mode—reading, rather than searching for relevant information, including ads.

Since the search engine is now extracting the ad revenue that used to go to the content provider, it makes sense that the search engine should pay some of that forward.

Finally, regarding freedom and Big Google:

Our labor is not free. Open source is a beautiful way of collaborating; but what’s happening on the free Internet is more akin to the “crowdsourcing” of journalists and other content creators by advertisers who no longer have to pay them—only the search engines that parse their articles. Why must everything we create or do be presumed free for everyone to use, in any context, and open to comments from anyone in the world? Searching me, and what I create, should be a privilege enjoyed by those to whom I offer it—not a right bestowed onto every person, company, and government on the planet.

Openness of this sort is not freedom. It’s the forced relinquishing of everything we do to the hive, and to Google. We end up with fewer new ideas, less original content, and more links, copies and regurgitations of yesterday’s ideas. The people and companies who index ideas end up getting the money, while the people who actually have ideas and waste their time creating content end up broke.

This last quote addresses the one concern I have with Google’s current attitude: the pervasiveness of it. Google’s management seems to this day oblivious to concerns and complaints regarding the intrusive nature of their operating mode.

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