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11.23.09

The New Good Guys

Suddenly Murdoch and Microsoft are on the right side against the Google. Douglas Rushkoff says the two oft-despised companies are the best hope to defeat the Evil Empire.

Discussions between Microsoft and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. for a structure where the former’s search engine (Bing) would pay for exclusive rights to the latter’s content (Wall Street Journal, Fox, etc.) has proven instantly upsetting to the self-appointed defenders of a "free" Internet. The simple reason: it might just work.

Defying the logic that everything is more valuable the higher it climbs on Google's search rankings, Rupert Murdoch is making good on his threat to pull out of Google searchability, altogether. Instead, he wants to be paid for his properties to show up in search results. And Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer may be desperate enough for a competitive advantage against Google to take Murdoch up on the deal, and offer it to other media companies with content people really want to find.

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.

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Of course, the information-wants-to-be-free troops are already up in arms. Some welcome what they see as the extinction of both evil empires in an ill-conceived death grip that will push Fox News and the Wall Street Journal off the mainstream map. Others see it as a last-gasp effort by "old media" to resist the unstoppable, Google-driven evolution of an entirely free content universe. 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.

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.

However much we all might like free content in the short term, it is unsustainable in the long term. When nobody is paying for content, that content stops being created. If money can’t be made reporting and writing articles, then professionals simply can't do it anymore. Unless we adopt the position that the amateur blogosphere is really capable of taking on the role that the New York Times and CNN play, then we do need solutions for paying for content.

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.

It is much too easy to look at this as two, crusty old monopolies battling against the young defender of open systems and human freedoms. I reflexively hate to be on Murdoch or Microsoft's side on pretty much any issue. But these waning media giants—along with Hearst, NBC, Bertelsmann, and even the New York Times—may just have enough power left between them to challenge the continuing, inexorable drive to make all content immediately open to exploitation, disconnected from its creators.

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.

So until we develop peer-to-peer currencies or come up with some other idea, we must pit the corporations who would exploit us against one another. By surrendering to just one publicly held company—no matter how little evil it says it wants to do—we doom ourselves to working for free.

Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of media studies at The New School University and producer and correspondent for the PBS Frontline Digital Nation project, is the author of numerous books, including Cyberia, ScreenAgers, Media Virus, and, most recently, Life Inc., released this month by Random House.