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July 24, 2017

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Nothing is free, even on the Internet

The Internet is free.


Those of us who are struggling in the media business have been hearing those words, to our everlasting chagrin, ever since readership of the printed paper started to nosedive and viewership of mobile phones, iPads, computers and the like started skyrocketing.

As if that wasn’t enough, the global economic meltdown and ensuing depressing recession has made it abundantly clear that if a democracy, which is dependent on its citizens having credible information upon which they can make decisions, is to survive then the news industry — or whatever the next iteration turns out to be — better figure out a way to get paid.

I think about this challenge every day and have a building full of energetic, brilliant and youthful people trying their best to create the new model for the 21st century that will provide the kind of credible news and information which will enrich our daily lives and which will better inform our actions at the ballot box.

I say all this in the context of the most recent demonstration of the power of the Internet that took place a few days ago when Google and other major players decided to call their troops to action over impending bills in Congress which was expected to protect the copyrights and work product of, especially, American writers, filmmakers and other artists whose work is being stolen on an hourly basis.

Much like the mobile phone messages managed to assemble tens of thousands in the public squares of the Arab Middle East to topple governments so, too, did Google and the others call to action hundreds and thousands of people worried about the Internet. Due, in part, to the outrage and, in greater part, to the realization that the pending bill needed some more work, congressional leaders pulled the legislation from consideration to make necessary changes.

The danger I see in this latest show of Internet strength is that many people may take away from this action the belief that the Internet really is free. Because it is not!

There is clearly a common desire to ensure that whatever can be dreamed can be delivered via the Internet. And, in that sense, developers, technologists and content creators need to be free to experiment without undue interference from government. I think most people will agree with that.

But, it would be foolish to base that willingness to foster innovation and creativity on the notion that the Internet is free because everything I have learned — which I admit is very little when it comes to the digital world — tells me the Internet and its relatives are far from free. And if we aren’t careful, it could get a lot more expensive.

To try to understand why there still is nothing free, not even lunch, let’s focus solely on the reasons for the latest effort by Congress to protect content.

The folks who bring us movies have a problem. They spend small fortunes making those movies so that we can enjoy them in theaters, on our computers, on DVDs and on any number of other devices. And we have always demonstrated our willingness to pay for that content because we understand that actors, directors, cameramen and catering services do not work for free. It is through our ticket prices, rental payments and Internet access charges that we help pay for the movies and, through them, the salaries and benefits of the people who made them.

Here is where the Internet comes into play, especially those search engine companies and others who have profit motives of their own — motives which often conflict with those of the people who make the movies. In short, there are people out there who spend their days and nights figuring out how to steal the movies and there are Internet sites, like Google for example, that are only too willing to search them out and direct their customers to them. That is when the stolen content is sold or rented at a fraction of the cost, and that is where the Internet fails.

The legislation that Congress was going to take up was designed to prevent the theft of those movies and punish those who participate in that thievery, just as if the thieves had walked into the movie theaters and stolen the film or found a way to have stolen the tickets for admission. When Google and the others protested, they did so in typical digital fashion. In less than 140 characters, they said the Internet is free and that told the entire story.

But, of course, it didn’t. Life is far too complicated to tell the story in less than 140 characters or in any other kind of digital shorthand. People need to know that if they allow an Internet site in China or elsewhere to steal content and sell it for pennies on the dollar that somewhere along the line someone else will have to make up the shortfall.

In this case, it would be the father of four who wanted to take his kids to the movies. What might have been $5 or $6 a ticket will now be $10 or $20 a ticket because of the theft and losses caused by an Internet site that cared not one whit about such things as fair payment and social norms. The Internet may have been “free” for the person searching Google for a discounted movie site but I can assure you that the father of four paid dearly to take his children to the movies.

There are hundreds of other examples of why the Internet really isn’t free. Have you looked at your Internet access charges lately? Your FedEx charges? Your credit card purchases that were easily made online rather than going to a store?

The point is that Google should be just as interested as Congress in preventing content piracy. But in trying to protect its own financial interests — it puts ads around those searches you know — Google may have spurred a generation of users to action in the false belief that the Internet is free.

It is not. Someone always pays for what others get for nothing. And all of us pay when someone steals.

Congress is supposed to pass laws to protect us from such excesses.

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