Who is going to start a movement to stop the social media giants from milking us like witless data cows? (Why a keiretsu-cooperative could be a better idea)

indoor rainbow 2 SC postgutenberg@gmail.com copy

Indoor rainbow, through a crack in a glass pane

Will the conversation about forcing Big Tech — especially Facebook and Google — to pay us for stripping our lives of personal information they sell to advertisers lead to a revised business model for newspaper publishing?

We launched this site in 2011 with a proposal that newspaper and other media websites share with commenters (then referred to as ‘bloggers’) the economic value that they add with their comments — a scheme we have updated intermittently since we first outlined it in 2010 as ‘The Keiretsu-Cooperative: A Model for Post-Gutenberg Publishing’.

In a paper released at the close of 2017, ** five scholars and computer experts at elite U.S. institutions are calling for social media users to unite to demand payment for the streams of data about us that have made Big Tech rich, and insist on our right to determine where that information goes and on what terms.

That is the essence of the boldest conclusion of those thinkers, collaborating over the fence from these places: the School of Engineering and the Department of Economics at Stanford; Columbia’s Department of Economics; Microsoft’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer, and the Department of Economics and Law School at Yale.

Their justification for their call to action is technical, apparently aimed at mandarins (wonks) drafting economic policy, whom they hope to persuade that governments must shift ‘ownership rights in data to the users that generate them.’ (About time, we say.) They couch their arguments in basic economic theory — the theory of the firm — whose jargon and quasi-mathematical symbols obscure concepts that are easy to express in plain English. The overall impression is of rabbis presenting scriptural sanction that they felt obliged to seek in the Talmud to bolster a commonsensical moral argument: social media users must not accept being milked for our data without compensation or control.

How likely are we to see the birth of a movement with such a rallying cry? Not very, we suspect. For a start, hardly anyone seems to have heard of its ivory tower recommendation or the paper in which that was made. We only learnt of this document’s publication by chance, browsing on the site of The Financial Times [ ft.com ]. There, the final paragraph of John Thornhill’s helpful outline and commentary reminds us that the exploited have historically got the attention of their exploiters by going on strike — and suggests ‘digitally picketing social media groups under the slogan: “No posts without pay!”’

In his column’s comments section, some readers urged the FT to set an example. This one, for instance:

FTcom reader's comment on John Thornhill column

Organising movements and keeping up their momentum can be frustrating enough to drive surpassingly patient saints to distraction. Time and patience are scarce, and we have all grown used to instant gratification on the net. Anyone can sign up for an account on Twitter and broadcast a maiden tweet in minutes. A newcomer to WordPress could write and publish a first blog post in less than an hour. By contrast, although launchers of a movement to get us paid for our data could use, say, Change.org’s tools to collect signatures for petitions, that would only be the first stage of years of hard graft, gathering political support for drafting laws to regulate the ownership and sale of users’ data.

Media organisations implementing our own proposal for treating users fairly could get results faster and lead in setting standards for post-Gutenberg economic equity. These are the principal components of a ‘keiretsu-cooperative,’ or economic structure for the future — a keiretsu being a sort of Japanese industrial club made up of companies pursuing similar or complementary aims:

• A newspaper publisher might create a meta-site with one or more book publishers with which its audience overlaps — and these partners could share this site’s capital improvement and running costs.

• Reader-commenters visiting the site would not be paid for individual comments. Instead, they would buy subscriptions that would also be small financial stakes in the keiretsu publishers’ meta-site.

What would be the attractions of a scheme like this for today’s corporate media owners?

• It would reduce their dependence on advertising, which social media giants have been diverting into their coffers.

• Offering readers co-ownership of a site where they read and contribute comments would give the keiretsu publishers an edge over Facebook — which, as we have argued in this space repeatedly, should be a cooperative owned by its users.

• Drawing up rules for paying readers and commenters for each individual contribution would be a lot more complicated than allowing them to buy stakes in the meta-site. Making them co-owners would ensure their loyalty and give them an incentive to return to participate often — making the site more attractive to advertisers.

We have laid out other advantages and other dimensions of our proposal here: ‘Adapt-or-die advice for newspapers being squeezed out by Facebook: create symphysis with your reader-commenters!’

Despite our reservations about it, a movement to end social media’s data theft is guaranteed our whole-hearted support.

** ‘Should We Treat Data as Labor? Moving Beyond “Free,”’ Imanol Arrieta Ibarra, Leonard Goff, Diego Jiménez Hernández, Jaron Lanier and E. Glen Weyl, American Economic Association Papers & Proceedings, Vol. 1, No. 1, (forthcoming).

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Will the calls for press reform during Britain’s Hackgate lead to action — or business as usual?

[D]iversity of ownership is an indelible liberal principle because a corporate media monopoly threatens a free press almost as much as a state monopoly does.

Nick Clegg, Deputy Prime Minister, 14 July 2011

[W]hat could emerge from this [is] not a sensible attempt to redefine journalistic ethics but a cack-handed attempt to restructure an industry. 

Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, 19 July 2011

Should we let novelists govern us? I am thinking, specifically, of thriller-writers of genius with a well-developed social conscience. Not entirely laughable, if you consider that at least one writer of fiction – Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81) – was a great British prime minister.

John le Carré was splashed all over the Guardian’s home page at the weekend in connection with the new film adaptation of his Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  The explanation for the adoring treatment he gets everywhere is not just his literary gifts but his bottomless suspicion of authority, and of unfettered capitalism. This part of his appeal overlaps with Stieg Larsson’s.

How sad that the outrage these writers tap and focus in us is so hard to convert into desperately needed social reform – if not a revolution.

Last Thursday, commenters on Dan Gillmor’s Guardian piece on the conflicts of interest in the media’s move online dismissed it with loud yawns. ‘Most of the sentient world attaches about 1% of the importance to what’s going on in the media as the media do,’ sniffed someone dressed up as @SoundMoney.

Irritation is an understandable reaction to 4th Estate preening. But the complaint by @SoundMoney – which echoed the protests of thousands of readers bored by Hackgate – missed Dan Gillmor’s point. He was arguing for the alternative to traditional media sources for news and information that the 5th Estate represents.

Unfortunately, there is no one engaging the public the way a Le Carré or Larsson story can to explain why press regulation in Britain needs to be altered. Ideally, the ownership of the media will be diversified, as Nick Clegg says it ought to be – and it would be interesting to know if he and his fellow Lib Dems would support a diversification that went as far as the partially reader-owned structure for online publishing that this site is advocating as an experiment.

A public too bored by the talk of media reform to get to grips with how much less puffed-up and untrustworthy the media could be if the changes go far and deep enough is making it easy for powerful columnists like Simon Jenkins — anxious for the 4th Estate to retain command of mass communication — to get what they want:

Has anyone been murdered? Has anyone been ruined?

[…]

That everyone knew journalists and the police were engaged in petty barter does not make it acceptable, let alone legal. Nor is it edifying to know how far politicians and editors are in and out of each other’s houses. But it is not the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Nuremberg trials.

… [T]oday’s stormcloud of hysteria is a poor prelude to what could emerge from this, not a sensible attempt to redefine journalistic ethics but a cack-handed attempt to restructure an industry. Perhaps instead the vast political and media resources currently on display might be redirected at the dire state of the nation, Europe and the world. They need it.

True enough. But doing anything about that ‘dire state’ means starting with the facts about it – from disseminators of facts we can trust.

If this sharp reader’s reaction is unjustified, Simon Jenkins has some explaining to do – not just to Britain but to the whole world, watching:

OpiumEater
19 July 2011 8:48PM

A truly pathetic analysis.

It’s not just the phone hacking; it’s the fact that the very fundamentals of our society have been undermined by undemocratic and authoritarian machinations, that we live – de facto – in a kind of hidden dictatorship in which the establishment of the police, media, and politicians have colluded and keep on colluding, beyond party lines.

Jenkins has missed the boat, or is defending something that is in his interest. Either way, he’s part of the problem.

Britain needs a period of proper ‘epuration’.