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No ABC in 1st 2011 Canadian Election Debates

No Australian Broadband for Canada, or much to do with the Internet, media, telecoms and copyright issues at all in tonight’s federal election debate.

Before I go any further, though, let me confess that I did not watch all of the federal election debate tonight. I’m sorry, I had other things to do. But I did catch about a half-hour of the debates on tv, another 10 minutes on radio while in the car, and another 15 minutes of video with no sound while at the gym. I may have missed something. Zygmunt Bauman calls it the ‘liquid life’ — that is, cobbling things together to make up your life on the fly.

But, I think I caught the gist of things and that is that none of the leaders really had much to say on media and Internet issues. Nothing about copyright or the uproar over Usage-Based Billing. In other words, none of the ABCs of ‘digital media policy’ merited much attention.

To be sure, I didn’t expect broadband Internet, media, copyright and UBB to be at the top of the agenda in tonight’s federal election debates. In fact, such issues probably should not be at the top of the agenda and generally I agree that funding pensions, healthcare, the general state of the economy, widening economic inequality, and the moral integrity of the Government-of-the-day are probably more important. Still, though, I didn’t expect digital media and Internet issues to be left out altogether, either.

There are a great many who wield fancy labels like the digital media economy, creative industries and the lot to give such issues a lustre and limelight they may not deserve. Big economic numbers for the media, telecom and Internet industries, and their contributions to the economy, culture and society, are often wielded about to underscore the impressiveness of these things. There is, truth be told, a great deal of puffery involved when it comes to talking about these things.

All of which is to say, that while I agree that digital media and Internet issues probably should not be artificially hyped, they should not be peripheral too the election, or just a blip that gets twittered about opportunistically amongst the twitterati. Why should we care if these issues are not at the centre of televised electoral debates?

First, because as a study by Canadian Media Research Consortium just released underscores, television is still people’s preferred medium for information and news. Television still plays an extraordinary powerful role in bringing things to people’s attention. This not just true for old people or couch dwellers, either. The fact of the matter is that those who spend the most time online are also the heaviest traditional media users, too.

Second, most of the primary news sources behind online news sites are creatures of the dominant traditonal news providers: CTV, Global, CBC-Radio-Canada, Globe & Mail, Toronto Star, Le Presse, Quebecor Media Inc. These entities largely, although not exclusively, play a big role in setting the news agenda for the country’s media as a whole, including the ‘news aggregators’ and blogosphere that thrive off of their efforts.

Of course, we can gain access to the New York Times, Le Monde and the Guardian or the Huffington Post, but they aren’t going to be much help on matters specifically Canadian in focus. Elections are one just such crucial matter.

For issues to be taken as a going concern in a democracy, they must be on the media screen, and in today’s world that means being on at least three different screens: the ‘big screen’ of tv, the glowing screen of the computer, and the wee screen of portable ‘devices’.

Third, media and Internet issues have been central themes in other national elections and politics. Network neutrality and broadband development were cornerstones of the Obama campaign in 2008, for instance; his administration has also paid considerable attention to issues surrounding the so-called ‘crisis of journalism’ and media concentration since then.

In Australia, the Government’s creation of a National Broadband Network to do an end-run around a recalcitrant incumbent — Telstra — in order to bring about a ultra high speed, broadband Internet service to ninety-plus percent of all Australians was extremely prominent and divisive in the 2010 federal elections. The Labour Government now in power supported the initiative, as did the Greens, a few independents, Microsoft and Google.

In Canada, the Usage Based Billing issue has received pretty good coverage in general, but broader media and Internet-related issues and, specifically, their place within the context of the elections, have not fared so well. The link between the media and Internet, on the one side, and electoral politics, on the other, has mostly been made on the Internet and Twitter.

This is important because, as the Canadian Media Research Consortium study pointed to above states, if stranded on a desert island, the internet is the least likely of all media to be let go by people. The importance of the internet in general is reflected in the uses of Facebook and Twitter in particular.

Facebook has been central to the efforts of the advocacy group OpenMedia.ca to make these issues an important part of the election campaign and all the political parties have responded rather eagerly, even if sometimes opportunistically, to ‘trending Twitter topics’ and Facebook-based campaigns.

At the end of 2010,Twitter had an impressive average number of monthly users in Canada of around 3.5 million, according to Comscore (p. 19).  That’s a lot. Many fear Twitter-induced attention deficits and depraved forms of journalism will be the natural upshot of Twitter’s 140 character per tweet format, but Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian in the UK, offers a rousing defense of its contributions to journalism and to public discourse.

However, we also must remember to keep things in perspective. The number of people who use Twitter — roughly 3.5 million a month — is less than the number of people who watched the debates last night or that buy a newspaper every day.  In terms of credibility and trust, the press blows away online sources, and television still fares somewhat better as well — although not much (see p. 14 of the Canadian Media Research Consortium study).

The Twitterverse is also a lot smaller than Facebook. With 22 million unique users a month, Facebook has nearly 7 times the number of unique monthly viewers in Canada (22 million) than Twitter has.

Interestingly, the Broadcast Consortium overseeing the organization of the federal election debates had the foresight to add a Facebook page to the mix of how political debate is circulated in the emergent network media ecology. The development suggests an interesting attempt to meet people where they are.

Facebook also raises anew questions about the relationship between popular culture, the media and politics. Its increasing pivotal role has drawn it closer to traditional conceptions of news and politics. Its inclusion as a formal part of the ‘operational machinery’ of the first televised English-language debates are one indicator of that. Recent overtures by Facebook to news executives is another.

Indeed, as a story on the Globe and Mail’s technology website the other day relayed, Facebook “is looking to strengthen its relationship with the news media and has already helped boost traffic to news websites” (see here).  It also created a special Facebook page just for journalists who want to integrate social media into the journalism process.

The New Yorker drew the connection a step further this month by requiring online readers of the magazine to use Facebook’s “Like” icon to gain access to one of its articles. The experiment essentially sets up the “Like” button as a kind of  “paywall”, but one that tries to translate the ‘social capital’ of Facebook users into a real pot of gold that many commercial media providers hope exists at the end of the digital rainbow.

All of this, of course, adds yet another wrinkle in the ‘evolution of the news’, to put it somewhat grandiosely. To date, the debate has been much about the impact of ‘content aggregators’ like Google and Yahoo on the news industry, and wails from many stalwarts in the latter that the blogosphere lives parasitically off the hard labour of real news organizations and journalists. Enter Facebook stage left.

There is something in all this related to the ‘functional convergence’ between ‘search’ and ‘social’ that I spoke about last week in relation to what I called the Google Switch — i.e. Google’s response to increasing competition from Facebook by increasingly adding ‘social capabilities’ such as ‘+1′ to its ballooning suite of functions such as Orkut, YouTube, Blogger.  However, in the circumstances just outlined, the drift is not from search to social, but rather the other way around. If such a ‘functional convergence’ is in fact taking place, then perhaps it is not just Google, but Facebook and other social networking sites, that will emerge as pivotal to the ‘future of the news’.

Communication researchers have always understood how media and information flows are nestled within existing networks of personal relationships.  Now the process is being digitized, fully commercialized, and rendered visible. Through all of this, will Google and Facebook be good for the News, good for democracy?  Hmm, now there’s a question ripe for pondering in the context of the 2011 election.

The Google Switch and +1: Search vs Social, Google vs Facebook

Today, according to the press releases now multiplying like bunnies across ‘online news sites’ and major newspapers of record around the world, Google added a social layer to its search functions.  It’s new “+1″ function is the online media behemoth’s response to Facebook’s ubiquitous “Like” function, although Google has been ‘going social’ for a while (e.g. Orkut, YouTube, Blogger).

Why does this matter anyway? For one, it gives us insight into two key functional characteristics of the Internet — search and social. It also sheds insight into Google itself, a subject that has gained increasing attention from academics such as Siva Vaidhyanathan (the Googlization of Everything), the media savvy journalist Ken Auletta (Googled) and staunch ‘new digital media’ sage and Google defender, Jeff Jarvis (What Would Google Do). Google is big business and what it does matters.

Google is increasingly competing for advertising revenue and Internet users’ time and attention with Facebook. Indeed, a shrinking number of digital media giants are battling for control the time that people spend online. This is especially important in Canada because Canadians, according to Comscore’s 2010 Canada Digital Year in Review, are the heaviest Internet users in the world spending, on average, 43.5 hours per month — greater than the 33 or 36 hours spent online per person in the U.S. and Korea, respectively (see p. 6).

In some ways, +1 is just another addition to Google’s ballooning suite of functions: search, gmail, Google Books,Blogger, Docs, browsers (Chrome), video (YouTube), operating systems (Android). The aim is to grab more of users’ time and to put more and more of the Internet ‘in the cloud’. In this case, it is Google’s cloud.

More services provides more reason for people to stick around with Google, rather than just the typical ‘search and run’ mode.  Moving more services off the desktop and in the cloud also keeps people connected more often, in more places, and for longer periods of time overall. This has largely worked from Google’s point of view.

This is why Google dominates online advertising markets and search — accounting for between 75 and 95 percent of all searches — in every country, except Russia, China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea. The power of search as a general utility, and Google’s role as the leading provider of this utility, is also growing in lockstep with the rapid growth in smart phones and the mobile Internet, as a recent Goldman Sach’s presentation shows. Overall, search dominates social in the ‘mobile Internet’ and Google’s grip with respect to search functionality is typically growing across the board.

There are a host of things that we should rightfully be concerned about by Google’s dominance of Internet search functionality and as things migrate from the devices and desktops in our own home’s to someone else’s cloud (read my earlier post on ‘social media and memory ownership‘).  Siva Vaidhyanathan has recently provided an extensive argument, in the Googlization of Everything, for why we should care. Some of his arguments are very thought-provoking. They go well beyond just the issue being discussed here. Here is a video clip of him responding to the question whether Google is a monopoly.

I don’t find Vaidhyanathan’s account quite as good as he seems to think it is, or quite as deserving of the praise showered upon it by some reviews. Some have trashed it, as the libertarian technophiles at the Technology Liberation Front did, but I definitely don’t think that their dismissal is right either.

Google is shaping the architecture of the Internet and the digitization of the media industries across the board. To think otherwise is to have one’s head buried in the sand. To think through why it’s important, however, is another matter.

Google so far has provided primarily utilitarian functions: search, scan, link, store. However, its not these functions, but rather the ‘social web’ and social networking sites — Facebook in particular — that are growing fast. Time spent on SNS sites overtook email in late-2007, according to the Goldman Sachs’ presentation referred to earlier. Will search be the next ‘killer app’ to fall?

The drift from search to social means that Google is increasingly competing with entities like Facebook — for users, for capital investment, for advertising revenues. In terms of the number of unique Internet page views per month, the yawning chasm that once stood between Google and Facebook has steadily closed (see here).

It is from within this context that we can understand why Google’s vast ambitions to colonize every nook and cranny of cyberspace/network media space now include adding “a thicker social layer” to its offerings. Always count on the tech-heads and marketing mavens to come up with a good line to summarize what’s going on. Here’s Dave Karnstedt, CEO of Efficient Frontier, in an March 30, 2011 Advertising Age article: “Injecting a social layer into the algorithmic search is key to relevance.” Translation: friends and family are key to Google’s bottom line.

Google’s ambitions have been seen as competing with and forcing traditional media to adopt new methods for the music, television, film and news industries for some time now. Now, competing with Facebook for the new coin of the realm — user attention — can be added to the list. There are several important dimensions of this.

The shifting balance between search and social needs to be seen in the context of competition for advertising revenues. Internet advertising growth is and has been explosive, growing globally from roughly $16b in 1998 to $66.2b in 2010. While online advertising has indeed grown very fast, we need to bear in mind several things.

First, recent trends will not not continue forever because, yes, like the ‘real world’, advertising spending online is subject to the ‘normal laws’ of capitalism.

Second, Internet advertising is tiny in comparison to Internet Access market, the pipes and ISPs that run the infrastructure that get content from one place to another: worldwide, the Internet access market in 2010 was worth $247.5b, or four times the size of online advertising market. It is smaller yet than the global television market: $351.3 billion in 2010.

Third, like the rest of the media economy, online advertising is also highly susceptible to swings in the macroeconomy. Like almost every other sector, except movies, Internet advertising fell in 2008 and 2009 amidst the global financial crisis attests.

Fourth, attention online has become more and more concentrated. According to figures cited by Wired, the top 10 websites in the US in 2001 accounted for by 31% of all page views. By 2006, the number had grown to 40 percent. In 2010, the top 10 accounted for roughly three quarters of all page views.

Online advertising is also very concentrated. With revenues of roughly $30 billion in 2010, 97 percent of which come from advertising, Google dominates the global online advertising revenue (e.g. accounting for 44% of the total $66.2 billion in online revenue in 2010).

In other words, while the galaxy of websites, blogs, information sources, uses, etc. continues to grow, Google and Facebook are becoming bigger constellations within the overall Internet universe. Growing concentration is sharpening the struggle between search and social, or between Google and Facebook — at least for the time being.

Google’s attempts to insert itself at the cross-roads of the emerging network media ecology have also upset many interests in the news business, book publishers and authors, as well as those in the television, film and music business. Many of these groups are pushing hard to leverage Google’s dominant position at the cross-roads of search as a major chokepoint for intercepting illicit downloads (see my earlier Rogues, Pirates and Bandits and Goliath vs. Goliath posts).

Cleavages between Google and the traditional media industries also means that its attempt to launch Google TV has met with mixed results. The fact that it has ruffled so many feathers is not unconnected to this.

The significant tensions between Google and other elements of the traditional media also plays into the competition between Google and Facebook.  This point was underscored last week when Time Warner chose Facebook to distribute  the latest Batman sequel, Dark Knight. For $3 a shot, Facebook subscribers can now download Dark Knight from the SNS. Does this mean that Facebook and other SNS will become significant new distribution channel for traditional media?

With its own ambitions for Google TV already having a hard time getting off the ground, Google now faces  the prospect of competing with Facebook for a role in the online television and movie distribution business, alongside AppleTV, Netflix and the incumbent media conglomerates’ own ‘over-the-top’ offerings such as Hulu. Add to this that search is a utility, while social networks function as the electronic watercooler of the digital network media, and we can see why Google is scrambling to make the shift from search to social.

Popular entertainment has always relied heavily on massive marketing and word of mouth, with the latter point being given ‘scientific heft’ by classic studies in communication by Lazarsfeld & Katz in the late-1940s and early-1950s. Today, the links in the two-step flow that they identified in ‘small town America’ have been digitized and commoditized writ large.

As Christian Fuchs, Mark Andrejevic, Elizabeth van Couvering, and a few others show, search and social functions are fundamentally intertwined in the production of the audience commodity and the organization of audience attention. They are also crucial to organizing the vast quantities of user created content (UCC) that underpins the digital media economy.

Together, these functions are crucial to the digital media economy and the sky high market capitalization of entities such as Google and Facebook. However, with social already putting the Internet’s first ‘killer app’ — email — in a downward spin, we can ask: is search (and Google) next? Or, will these two functions themselves converge?

Cassandra’s and Copyright: Creative Destruction and Digital Media Industries

A new study released yesterday on peer-to-peer content sharing and copyright in the United Kingdom, Creative Destruction and Copyright Protection, provides a further challenge to those who claim that strong new measures are needed to make sure that swapping digital content online does not damage the bottom line of the media and entertainment industries. The study was co-authored by London School of Economics and Political Science Professors Bart Cammaerts and Bingchun Meng.

It is a part of several steps being taken in the U.K. that challenge last year’s hastily passed Digital Economy Act. The bill became law after only two hours of debate in the House of Commons and is a real gift to the media and  entertainment industries and the various lobby groups that represent them: e.g. the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), its British counterpart, the British Phonographic Industry Association, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Motion Picture Association (MPA), and so on.

Among other things, the Act turns Internet Service Providers into agents of the media and entertainment industries. Upon notification, ISPs must send a warning notice to suspected copyright infringers and if that does not work they can be directed by the Secretary of State to disconnect the offending user.

As the IFPI noted in its latest Digital Music Report, it has been pushing for such measures around the world in the past couple of years. Indeed, this push supersedes the emphasis earlier in the decade for DRM (digital rights management technologies).  The IFPI has chalked up several ‘wins’ for this approach in the UK, France, Sweden, South Korea, Taiwan, and a few others (see pp. 25-27).

Two of the biggest ISPs — BT and Talk Talk — in the UK have not taken these requirements lying down. They have launched a legal challenge that will be heard this week by the UK High Court of Justice on the ground that the Digital Economy Act’s requirements amount to overkill.

Cammeart and Meng are clear that P2P technologies should be encouraged rather than discouraged. In contrast, the Digital Economy Act stifles innovation and attempts to shore up faltering traditional business models. The message of this report, in other words, is that governments are not in the ‘business model’ protection racket. However, as I have written in earlier posts, that they are in just such a business is also evident in Canada, where Usage Based Billing is clearly linked with attempts to protect the cable and telephone companies forays into the online video business by hamstringing would-be rivals such as Netflix, Apple TV, even Youtube.

In contrast to the current approach, the authors and various people interviewed for the study suggest a significantly different approach. Thus, as one of the report’s authors, Bart Cammaerts states,

“The music industry and artists should innovate and actively reconnect with their sharing fans rather than treat them as criminals. They should acknowledge that there are also other reasons for its relative decline beyond the sharing of copyright protected content, not least the rising costs of live performances and other leisure services to the detriment of leisure goods. Alternative sources of income generation for artists should be considered instead of actively monitoring the online behaviour of UK citizens.”

Early in the report, they also quote from Ed O’Brian from the band Radiohead, who had the following to say:

“We disagree with the industry on what should be done with the persistent file-sharers. The industry has said we will suspend their internet accounts. But you can’t just do that, it isn’t possible and neither feasible. The kind of technical measures that are required to implement this get you into dodgy areas such as civil liberties, tracker software and the second thing is that it costs a lot of money to do this, and even if you do it, you are going to drive a lot of people underground into darknets. Our problem is how do you differentiate between a serial infringer and someone who does it in the spirit of discovery” (Ed O’Brian from Radiohead on BBC, 22/09/2009).
My only real criticism of this report is that the authors take the IPFI’s data on the drastic decline in sale of recorded music at face value, but attempt to offset it by pointing to changing patterns of music consumption, falling disposable household income and the rise of online digital platforms. Their points are well-taken.
Indeed, income levels in western capitalist democracies, including Canada, have largely stagnated for the past 30 years, while wealth has concentrated at the top. To this, we can also had the decline in ‘liesure time’ over the same period, as the historical tendency for the workday to shorten was reversed, resulting in people spending greater and greater amounts of time at work. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that less time and money erodes media consumption.
Such trends run exactly counter to the massive rise in both income and ‘liesure time’ that gave rise to the media and entertainment industries between 1870 and 1945, as Gerben Bakker exhaustively illustrates in his 2009 book Entertainment Industrialized.
These points are indeed important, but I would add another that I think is even more important: namely, that taking into account all sources of income, the music industry has not contracted, but expanded greatly since the late-1990s, precisely alongside the massive popularization of the Internet. In order to understand that, we need to focus not just on the sale of ‘recorded music’ and ‘online revenues’, but also publishing royalties and, crucially, live entertainment. When we do that, as I showed in another post last week, the music industries have expanded greatly.
Here’s the data showing, first, the drastic decline in the sale of recorded music, followed by the full picture:
Figure 1: Worldwide ‘Recorded Music Industry’ Revenues, 1998 – 2010 (US$ Mill.)


Source: Source: PWC (2010; 2009; 2003), Global Entertainment and Media Outlook

Clearly, just on the basis of recorded music sales, the music industry is in dire shape indeed. However, things look decidedly different once we take a look at the full picture, as the following figure does.

Figure 2: Worldwide ‘Total Music Industry’ Revenues, 1998 – 2010 (US$ Mill.)


Sources: PWC (2010; 2009; 2003), Global Entertainment and Media Outlook and IDATE (2009). DigiWorld Yearbook.

The top line shows the picture: a sharp increase in total revenues. Against declining revenues for recorded music, each of the other segments has risen considerably: Internet/mobile; publishing and concerts. Cammaerts and Meng do an excellent job showing the rise of digital revene

First Musings & Digital Media Hotspots

Well, one has to begin somewhere and after delaying (and delaying and . . . You get the picture), I finally screwed up the resolve to make my first foray into blogging. I’ve lurked around others’ blogs for a while, and have a great admiration for the way in which some blogs work, and their potential overall. On this one, I’m very much with those like Yochai Benkler, who see in blogs, Wikipedia, YT and other social media the potential to revitalize how people talk to one another rather than those like Cass Sunstein who fear the ‘tower of babble’ and think that much of what occurs in these kind of spaces is that everybody pretty much yells at everybody else.

I’ve stayed away from posting to blogs, creating and maintaining my own website, twittering and everything else for a long while too, because I thought that succumbing to these temptations was somehow just a wee bit too self-indulgent for my liking, and that they would be a huge suck on my time.  This still could be the case, but I’m willing to give it a go.   Usually, I like to let my ideas develop over the ‘fullness of time’, and then like any good member of the professoriate, to publish ‘em.  Okay, enough delay, here’s to me dipping in my toes in these digital waters.

I came across the outlines of another blog today by someone that happens to haunt the halls of academia just across campus from me, Blayne Haggard, although I’ve never met him before. Anyway, he had some smart things to say about the cranky verbal smackdown delivered to ‘copyright dissidents’ by Cabinet Minister James Moore yesterday in a talk he gave to a meeting of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Toronto.   Moore, the Heritage Minister, and not the government’s front-man on the digital economy or the new  copyright bill that is once again on the table (the seemingly smarter and less bombastic Tony Clement is in charge), tried to pin the ‘radical extremist’ label on those who object to the new bill’s provisions that would criminalize the act of breaking ‘digital locks’, or ‘technology protection measures’ (TPM) as they’re called in the ‘biz.  This is a first foray, so I’m going to keep it short. But, for more stuff on Jame’s Moore acting as a blowhard see here .

Check-out the incomparably more civil blogs of Michael Geist <http://www.michaelgeist.ca&gt;, novelist and writer Cory Doctorow’s <http://www.boingboing.net/2010/06/23/a-canadian-authors-p.html&gt; sharp and smart take on the key stakes at play around this issue, and Blayne Haggard’s <http://blaynehaggart.blogspot.com/&gt;.   Even the Retail Council of Canada seems to playing on the right side of this one, as are students concerned that books bought for a kindle might not work for their ipads, computers, cellphones, or any other device they wanna use to read.  For gawd sakes, free the book, free the phones, and free whatever other media devices and content we want from the digital locks and industry strategies that bind us to the ‘industrial media’ model. Dwayne

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