Monday, April 16, 2012

The new gatekeepers of the media world have yet to be tested in a crisis in the West, how will they react?

Several articles appeared online today on the NYT website that seems to raise a red flag for me. Separately, they could be ignored or chalked up to "more of the same", but together they had me wondering about our new media gatekeepers – those new corporations that control many of our new digital media outlets. More on this after a taste of the articles:

Spain Bond Yields Rise Above 6% as Investor Fears Flare Anew: NYT

“It is looking more and more likely that Spain is going to have some form of a bailout,” Mr. Graham-Taylor said, adding that, absent an intervention from the E.C.B., “you would not see a cap on Spanish yields. they would just keep increasing.”
Europe’s Economic Suicide: Paul Krugman, NYT
Consider the state of affairs in Spain, which is now the epicenter of the crisis. Never mind talk of recession; Spain is in full-on depression, with the overall unemployment rate at 23.6 percent, comparable to America at the depths of the Great Depression, and the youth unemployment rate over 50 percent. This can’t go on — and the realization that it can’t go on is what is sending Spanish borrowing costs ever higher.
From the Birthplace of Big Brother: NYT Editorial
Britain’s government is preparing sweeping new legislation that would let the country’s domestic intelligence agencies monitor all private telephone, e-mail, text message, social network and Internet use in the country, bypassing requirements for judicial warrants.
As with all such legislation on both sides of the Atlantic, sponsors promote the bill as a necessary new tool to keep the public safer from would-be terrorists, child molesters and common criminals. We are not convinced.
Depressed economic times inevitably lead to political instability. So far only a few European governments have fallen – having been replaced with either the political opposition or technocrats installed by the bankers.

But in a week the French head to the polls and there is a good chance the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy could be replaced by the Socialists, led by François Hollande. Early in May, Greeks go to the polls and recent polling finds, well, a mess. In Spain, though, the conservative government recently came to power, so there is no electoral outlet on the near horizon, and so protests there take on a different sense of urgency.

In the past, the printed media simply took to the street to distribute their news and information – no other distribution outlets being available. Today, the web is the key to so many communication vehicles, whether that is news websites, social media, or digital media via app.
Photobucket
Just how open will Apple's Newsstand
remain in a political crisis?

My thought experiment involves the gatekeepers of our new media world: government, Apple, Google and others. How will these institutions and organizations react to unrest, radical media, etc.

We saw in several Middle Eastern/North African countries how the government reacted to the use of social media – several literally cut the cord that kept their countries connected to the rest of the wired world.

Twitter was blocked in Egypt for a time last year and responded on their company blog by saying that "Tweets Must Flow":

"Our goal is to instantly connect people everywhere to what is most meaningful to them. For this to happen, freedom of expression is essential. Some Tweets may facilitate positive change in a repressed country, some make us laugh, some make us think, some downright anger a vast majority of users. We don't always agree with the things people choose to tweet, but we keep the information flowing irrespective of any view we may have about the content."

But that was Egypt. How would Twitter, or the app reviewers at Apple or Google react if requested to "cut communications" by a European government?

Apple, in the early days of the App Store, generated a lot of negative press when it routinely rejected apps that revealed a bit of flesh or contained political comment. In all but a few cases Apple ended up reversing its decision. Many saw this as caused by Steve Jobs's naive vision of the App Store as a kind of electronic world of Disney. But it was been quite a while since Apple has generated any news with an app rejection that smelled in any way of it being a political decision.

Google, on the other hand, continues to see itself as a bastion of openness. The Guardian this morning posted an interview with Sergey Brin where the Google co-founder warned about the threat to Internet freedom. In the interview Brin pointed not only to countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran that have censored the web, but to companies such as Facebook and Apple, which is accused have building closed environments.

"There's a lot to be lost," Brin said. "For example, all the information in apps – that data is not crawlable by web crawlers. You can't search it."

But Brin appeared to be completely closed off to the way customers now see Google. The comment thread is hardly friendly to Brin's position simply because so many see Google as hypocritical.

"Google playing the open and free card is highly cynical. Google's view is that it's great to be open as long as you are logged into a Google account where your web browsing behavior is efficiently tracked under one login and password, for the benefit of their advertising business," wrote one commenter.

Another wrote simply "Oh the irony. He said this with a straight face and without his tongue in his cheek?"

I suppose we won't know until such crisis situations occur in markets that these companies hold dear, and it would naive to say that the situation was any different in the recent past. Certainly it was rare to hear many voices of dissent on network television in the sixties, other than in a negative light. The media has always acted as a gatekeeper of the news. But now the gatekeepers are themselves subject to new gatekeepers, and how they will react in volatile times is hard to predict.

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