Tuesday, September 23, 2008

European bloggers and the freedom of speach

In June there was a lot of discussion all over the blogosphere, and in some newspapers as well, about a draft report fom the Committee on Culture and Education, written by Marianne Mikko. This report was discussed yesterday, as the European Parliament is currently in session. This is taken from the short draft of the main topics for this week's session.:
Call to defend media pluralism, but questions over blogging
Parliament will vote on draft resolution tabled by the Culture Committee that calls for steps to be taken to ward off threats to media freedom and diversity from owners, shareholders and governments. At the same time the committee voices concern about the uncontrolled nature of blogs and other on-line media. The own-initiative report, drafted by Marianne MIKKO (PES, ET), argues that "the unrestricted concentration of ownership jeopardises pluralism and cultural diversity" and that there is a "considerable risk" that concentration of ownership and the private media's pursuit of profit can compromise its ability to act as a watchdog for democracy

Obviously something like this gets picked up by the bloggers, and there was apparently quite an outrage when this was first discussed in June this year. Some think this outrage was more than a little misplaced. Jon Worth at the Euroblog delivers a quite sober analysis of the case.

Still, there is reason for concern and to follow what is happening right now closely. The draft does suggest certain changes which may impact bloggers in Europe in probably not exactly well-thought-out ways.

This is the premise for the suggestions in the report (which is written in a fascinating legaleese) which most directly concerns bloggers:
whereas weblogs are an increasingly common medium for self-expression by media professionals as well as private persons, the status of their authors and publishers, including their legal status, is neither determined nor made clear to the readers of the weblogs, causing uncertainties regarding impartiality, reliability, source protection, applicability of ethical codes and the assignment of liability in the event of lawsuits,

Several of the suggestions respond to this:
4. Stresses the need to institute monitoring and implementation systems for media pluralism based on reliable and impartial indicators;

7. Proposes the introduction of fees commensurate with the commercial value of the usergenerated content as well as ethical codes and terms of usage for user-generated content in commercial publications;
8. Welcomes the dynamics and diversity brought into the media landscape by the new media and encourages responsible use of new channels such as mobile TV;
9. Suggests clarifying the status, legal or otherwise, of weblogs and encourages their voluntary labelling according to the professional and financial responsibilities and interests of their authors and publishers;

11. Encourages the disclosure of ownership of the media outlets to help to understand the aims and background of the publisher;

This doesn't look so bad, does it?

The problem particularly with point 9 is that it does not really reflect an understanding of who the bloggers are. It assumes that all bloggers are adults who blog on topics of public interest and which does not disclose potentially harming information about the individual. Or that they all should be. It does not take into consideration how much time and energy is currently being used by parents and teachers to teach kids and teen-agers NOT to disclose everything about themselves, including name, address and their economic situation, to random strangers online. It absolutely counters the work for internet smartness and safety. It also ensures that people will stop discussion sensitive issues, which may be everything from the many grief-sites written by parents who have lost their children, by way of tentative artistic expressions and self-published art and poetry, to discussions of culturally stimatising sexual behaviour.

The assumption that full disclosure is good for all is probably correct for much of the news, academic and politics blogging which happens in Europe. But those are not the main mass of bloggers. Underage bloggers talking about hobbies, games, interests, loves, sexuality, fears, personal experiences or exchanging pictures of their cats comprise a large blogging group, and blogging is an important part of their learning process, in aquiring increased media literacy. Now, of course, the draft says "voluntairy" and "economic interests", and those with no economic interests can just stay unenclosed, can't they? Or should this group stop blogging alltogether?

Marianne Mikko says:
Ms Mikko told us "the blogosphere has so far been a haven of good intentions and relatively honest dealing. However, with blogs becoming commonplace, less principled people will want to use them".

Asked if she considered bloggers to be "a threat", she said "we do not see bloggers as a threat. They are in position, however, to considerably pollute cyberspace. We already have too much spam, misinformation and malicious intent in cyberspace". She added, "I think the public is still very trusting towards blogs, it is still seen as sincere. And it should remain sincere. For that we need a quality mark, a disclosure of who is really writing and why. "

Are blogs with cat images "pollution"? Are blogs with information which counters the official line "pollution"? Are blogs that criticise and disagree with EU in general and Marianne Mikko in particular "pollution"?

Some of the points in this draft are really good. I'd be interested in a full disclosure of ownership structures in European media. I suspect the Norwegian media ownership structure is no worse than the rest of Europe, in which case a very few owners control almost the entire organised publishing sphere. There will be a few alternatives, and Europe still has a fairly strong structure of national public broadcasting organisations, which offer some plurality. But a European map of the commercial news organisations was pretty bleak already in the eighties. Axel Springer Verlag introduced a model which has become quite effective and dominant, with Michael Murdock as a good follow-up. Wikipedia has an interesting article on media concentration, and I don't know the details well enough to say how precise it is. The many frames in this article asking for assistance in the clean-up and expansion indicate that this is a matter of concern and conflict. If the European Union managed to map the media conglomerates of Europe, that would be quite a feat.

But with the ownership of registered, organised media as hard to track as it is, how can anybody ask for full disclosure from all bloggers? First of all: What is a blog? Any homepage can be a blog. And blog software can be used to create pages and sites which don't look like blogs at all. To try to remove all "spam" from the Internet by removing blogs means to revoke the public's right to publish online without a license. In Norway at the beginning of the 19th century there was a death penalty to start a newspaper without a license from Copenhagen and the king. With no further comparison: is the Committee of Culture and Education really suggesting that all people who want to use the Internet for anything but email should register in a database and disclose all their personal information, including their economic connections?

The suggestion must fall on its own lack of reason.
First: It's impossible to define blogs in a way that will single out this group, and not include all the other communication strategies common online.
Second: Short of closing down the 'net, there's no way to control all communication through it. Amusingly, the report indicates voluntairy registration, which is an appeal to the community spirit which has built so many useful and good resources online.
Third: There's no way EU can argue against information control in China, and try to impose the Chinese vision of full public control of online communication on the European citizens without running into some really unpleasant clashes with their own ideals.

With the example of the milk scandal in China running at full force at the moment, the potential for abuse of a weblog registry should be obvious. Also full disclosure would make whistle-blowing a lot more problematic. Certain things are more reliable when told by an anonymous source, this is why sources need to be protected from disclosure.

But, anyway, the draft report is not a law. It's a suggestion which may or may not influence European media policy. And it's an example of how hidebound it's easy to become, when all you read are the blogs that concern your own field. Read a little wider, Marianne Mikko. Start your own blog. Who knows, you might like to be able to talk back, and not feel such an urge towards regulation. If the spam bothers you - start working for developing a European based, independent search engine to challenge the hegemony of the few US based ones. How that would be interesting.

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