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Dan Gillmor: 2012 will be the year of the content-controller oligopoly

The forces that seek to control the free flow of information are bigger than ever, the blogging pioneer argues — and a direct threat to journalism and innovation.
Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Next up is blogging pioneer Dan Gillmor, a journalism professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the author, most recently, of Mediactive.

For 2012:

Journalists will start paying serious attention to an issue that will ultimately determine whether they can participate in the digital world: control.

We are moving rapidly from an era of an oligopoly of content providers to an oligopoly of content controllers: new choke points. This is not media consolidation in the traditional sense, where a few huge conglomerates used economies of scale to dominate journalism by dominating the local and national agendas. This consolidation, to a very few companies plus increasing government intervention, is even more dangerous — and information providers of all kinds are finally starting to grasp what’s happening.

The choke points include (among others):

  • Search engines. Google, for example, has enormous power to decide who is visible, and has collected staggering amounts of data on our individual preferences and how we use the Internet. So far, the company has behaved in mostly benign ways. But will not always be in the hands of people who take seriously the “don’t be evil” mantra the founders established at the beginning.
  • Wire-line Internet service providers. In most American communities there are, at most, two “broadband” service providers: the cable and phone companies, monopolies established with government protection. Cable is vastly superior due to the lack of fiber investment by the phone industry, and is rapidly becoming the de facto broadband provider. Meanwhile, the carriers are demanding the right to decide what bits get delivered in what order and at what speed, if they get delivered at all, to the customer requesting them. With these companies taking on more and more of a content role — Comcast’s buyout of NBC Universal the prime example — fair service provision, also known as Network Neutrality, is a bigger issue than ever.
  • Mobile carriers. With the FCC’s assent, this oligopoly doesn’t even offer a nod to fair network practices. Their bandwidth caps make the wired-line carriers’ own caps (a totally unneeded “fix” that appears designed to favor their own content) look generous, and they’re deploying what amounts to spyware, such as the now-infamous Carrier IQ, to watch everything we’re doing.
  • Apple. The news industry’s love affair with one of the most valuable companies on Earth has only expanded with the death of Steve Jobs. Yet Apple’s censorious control-freakery has never been greater, and its business tactics are no less brutal and predatory than Microsoft’s were in the 1990s — and they have been, and are continuing to be, applied to information providers who wish to use Apple’s increasingly powerful marketplace. (Journalists have barely begun to wake up to this threat, sadly.)
  • The copyright cartel. Hollywood and its allies do not like anything they cannot control, and they are working harder than ever to control the Internet. They’ve come close this year to getting Congress to pass an Internet censorship regime, via “SOPA” in the House and “ProtectIP” in the Senate — legislation that is on the fast track. Broadcast media conglomerates have all but ignored the issue in their coverage, to no surprise, and traditional print coverage of it has been weak. Late in the game, journalists started to understand the threat, but even if the bill doesn’t pass this year it will certainly be near the top of Congress’ agenda in 2012.
  • Government. Not only is Congress working on Hollywood’s behalf, but the Obama administration has been a regressive force inside the United States — while trumpeting Internet freedom abroad. Its virulent attacks on WikiLeaks, and misuse of the ICE (immigration and customs enforcement) process to take down sites with no due process are chilling. American journalists have failed to realize that their non-support for WikiLeaks is non-support for themselves, and they’ve essentially ignored the administration’s hypocrisy.

The forces of control are getting more powerful every day. They are a direct threat to journalism and innovation. Journalists are starting to take note — and we can only hope it’s not too late.

                                   
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