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Is Wikipedia's Wales the shop steward of the information age?

By John Harrison - posted Tuesday, 24 January 2012

It's an election year in the United States. Beyond the joke that is Newt Gingrich - less military experience than pacifist Ron Paul and more wives than Mormon Mit Romney - a more serious, even sinister, issue has been in play: The attempt by the US Congress to redefine regulation of the Internet through the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House of Representatives) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) in the Senate, was an extraordinary ambit claim for extra-territoriality.

It had ambitions to control the World Wide Web not just in the United States, but all over the world. It made the ambitions of the fictional Elliot Carver in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies all too real.

But getting re-elected to Congress is an expensive business, and so when lobbyists for legacy media (the music industry, the movie industry, TV and radio stations) lobbed up to Capitol Hill with fat wallets, they were almost killed in the rush of members of Congress wishing to co-sponsor the bills. In a Congress characterised by bitter partisanship, the bipartisanship these bills brought forth was unprecedented.


House Judiciary Committee chair and Texas Republican Lamar Smith is the principal sponsor of the SOPA. Campaign finance records show that legacy media companies top the list of donors to Smith's (current) re-election campaign. They include CC Media Holdings (the parent company of Clear Channel Communications), Comcast Corp, The National Association of Broadcasters, The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, The Recording Industry Association of America and Time Warner Cable.

One of the bill's most prominent supporters was Rupert Murdoch who joined the fray on Twitter, saying "So Obama has thrown in his lot with Silicon Valley paymasters who threaten all software creators with piracy, plain thievery". At 80 something years of age Murdoch is clearly having trouble getting a handle on Twitter and it was perhaps not the best day for him to be talking about piracy and thievery. Two days later News International settled claims from some 37 of the alleged 700 plus individuals hacked by News of the World's hacks.

In protest against SOPA and PIPA, Tuesday January 17, 2012, saw an estimated 10,000 websites "go black" and an estimated 7 million people signed a Google organised electronic petition, according to The Washington Post, although, as the old saw goes, in cyberspace nobody knows you're a dog, so how many of those were authentic is anybody's guess.

In consequence, the co-sponsors of these two instruments of legislative stupidity began withdrawing their support faster than an Italian cruise liner captain leaving a sinking ship, and the bills are now apparently, dead in the water.

The cyber protest was interesting in that in the industrial age, ordinary people withdrew their labour when faced with unconscionable conduct from their employers; in the information age, ordinary people withdraw their knowledge, when faced with unconscionable conduct. It should come as no surprise that the knowledge collective known as Wikipedia was to the forefront in orchestrating the protest. Jimmy Wales is the shop steward of the digital age.

Contrast this with the muted response in Australia to the release of the interim report of the Convergence Review, in December 2011. The interim report is thin, but in contrast to the "stop the pirates" approach of the United States, it is a document which argues that the function of a regulator goes beyond that of simple regulation. It is visionary, even utopian. The Interim Report (p.2) says:


Innovation and investment in the content and communications sector will flourish where prescriptive legislation is replaced by a legislative scheme that gives the regulator flexible powers to address the full range of issues that may arise across the digital economy.

However one should always be sceptical when regulators have grand visions of promoting content creation, educating the citizenry, consumer protection, and reversing global warming, particularly when that vision is based on just 250 submissions. Moreover, when have the ideas of "innovation" and "regulation" ever been conjoined with any success?

Much more provocative is the likely to be the report of the Finkelstein Inquiry, a political put up job by the Labor government aided and abetted by their coalition partners (on this issue) the Greens. Finkelstein is scheduled to report by February 28. Cutely called the Independent Media Inquiry, the tenor of the inquiry so far has been to broaden the auspice of the Australian Press Council, and to even suggest that this body should receive some government funding. Indeed this was made explicit in Inquiry's third term of reference, which was to examine "ways of substantially strengthening independence and effectiveness of the Australian Press Council, including in relation to online publications."

The suggestion caused apoplexy among journalists such as Media Watch's Jonathan Holmes at the government funded ABC. The logic of this position is that it is okay for broadcasters to be government funded; for broadcasting regulators to be government funded, but it's not okay for newspaper regulators to be government funded (nor indeed for newspapers).

The real sleeper however lies in reference to online publications. Both Finklestein and the Convergence Review hold out the prospect of greater regulation of online content; the very proposition that attracted so much opprobrium last week in the United States. When the final reports are in, will we see Crikey, New Matilda, ABC Online, and indeed, On Line Opinion, blacked out in protest? And who will be Australia's Jimmy Wales?

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About the Author

Dr John Harrison teaches journalism and communication at The University of Queensland. An award winning journalist and higher education teacher, he is at the forefront of the development of new ways of learning using digital mobile media.

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