Online ethical problems not so different from offline

Thu, Feb 16, 2012, 00:00

Best practice in digital media should be a simple extension of the longstanding ethical principles in other fields, writes HUGH LINEHAN

IN ATTICS all over Ireland, dusty cardboard boxes contain evidence of the former criminal careers of respectable, middle-aged people. Inside these boxes are stacks of audio cassettes with tracklists painstakingly written out in biro (providing valuable handwriting evidence should the Garda be inclined to investigate).

As one of those wrongdoers, I confess I carried out this heinous crime for more than a decade, ignoring the clear message from record companies that “home taping is killing music”. I recognise now that in doing so, I was depriving an entire generation of jangly guitar bands of their rightful income. I hope they all got proper jobs in the end.

At the same time I was making mixtapes, the former editor of the Irish IndependentVinnie Doyle was at the height of his admirable powers. On his death two years ago, several obituaries fondly recalled how Doyle would appropriate stories from rival papers and paste them pretty much verbatim into his own pages. Nowhere was it suggested this was a heinous sin, though it was undoubtedly irritating for his competitors.

All of which is to suggest that there has always been more creative ambiguity around what constitutes fair use of copyrighted content than is acknowledged in the heat of some recent debates. However, there’s no doubt the instant availability of digital content for distribution and infinite duplication at the moment of publication has further changed the rules of this particular game.

As it happens, record companies and newspapers are the two content creation industries that have been most severely disrupted by new digital technologies. This has played out in different ways. For the music industry it takes the form of drastically shrunken revenues due to illegal file-sharing online. For newspapers, it’s been the double whammy of advertising transferring to new digital services such as Google, along with a seemingly inexorable slide in print circulation as people move to getting their news online. In both cases, the trend is exacerbated by “unbundling”, whereby consumers are no longer prepared to pay for a full album or a newspaper, preferring to graze the broader internet. It’s also undeniable that both industries have been slow to develop quality digital services, and have suffered as a result.

In the meantime, new businesses – Apple, Google, etc – have sprung up to fill the gap between content producers and consumers. Search engines and social networks have become lucrative portals to content, and are often resented by the content creators themselves for that reason. So when media companies complain about the widespread theft of their content, the response from some quarters is a) they’re being hypocritical and b) they just don’t get the new rules of the internet. But that’s not the full story.

Here last week, Fintan O’Toole argued that digital consumers had become “rabid kleptomaniacs, stealing everything we can get our digital paws on – music, films, books. If tables and chairs and clothes and food existed in a downloadable form, we’d steal those too.”

Is this really a valid comparison? If I make a copy of your song, you still have the song. You may, of course, argue that I am potentially depriving you of the income. Surely the point is that neither position fully reflects the fluidity of the way most people think about intellectual content and copyright, and that these concepts are continually changing, in large part due to technology. Much of the current debate and campaigns around SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act introduced into the US Congress) and ACTA (the 2011 Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) for example, are driven by the threat that increasing bandwidth and speed pose to the film and television industries.

O’Toole’s column itself became the subject of a separate debate on ethical issues online. When satirical and current affairs website broadsheet.iepicked up on his article, stuck a sardonic headline on it (“New Technology Baffles Peeved Old Liberal”, since you ask) and pasted up most of it on its own site, it was criticised by the online community for acting unethically. Commenters on the social news site Reddit pointed out that: “Broadsheet is adding nothing to the discussion, they haven’t published a counter argument to Fintan’s; they’ve just reproduced it to drive traffic and thereby increase ad revenue. The irony that they are stealing web-traffic from the IT, by reproducing an article that touches on the errors of such a strategy, seems completely lost to them. Their hypocrisy is astounding.”

Broadsheet.ie, to be fair, amended its article as a result. You can read the discussion at iti.ms/xFDElK

Best practice in digital media should be a simple extension of longstanding ethical principles in other fields. Don’t exploit other people’s work without their permission for your own financial gain. Don’t pass off their work as yours. As the Reddit discussion shows, online communities are the best first guarantors of online standards and principles.

At its best, after all, online discourse allows for a level of attribution, cross-referencing and fact-checking. The problem is a number of online news aggregators regularly flout those principles, recycling work done at considerable expense by other outlets and passing it off as their own. The legality of such business models will ultimately be a matter for the courts and perhaps for legislation. But it would be preferable if online users were the first to hold those services to account.


Hugh Linehan is Irish Times Online Editor

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