"Protect the public sphere": Paul Bradshaw on the importance of net neutrality for journalism

 by Martin Belam, 31 March 2011

This is the last of three blog posts inspired by attending Paul Bradshaw’s inaugural lecture at City University. So far I’ve published my notes about what he said on news organisations and online communities, and on the problem of ego in journalism. Today I wanted to look at what I think was the most interesting aspect of Paul’s talk. It was the most passionately I’ve seen someone frame the arguments around net neutrality and issues of ISP regulation directly with regard to the tools and practice of journalism.

Bradshaw talked about the “corporatisation of the public sphere”. Markets and democracies need a public sphere where information can be shared, whether it is the internet of today, or the coffee houses that used to serve the need for merchants to have information about cargo and prices. Paul said: “To my mind, we are failing to protect this online”.

He thought this was typified by the difficulties Wikileaks got onto after the publication of the U.S. diplomatic cables. Printing presses are not shut down without due process, Paul said, but companies pulled out from dealing with Wikileaks without a court order in sight, just from the fear of commercial consequences or under pressure - explicit or implicit - from the state.

Paul feels that another key issue that should concern journalists is net neutrality. I think it is rather an abstract concept to many non-netheads, but essentially it would allow ISPs to favour one type of content over another, or charge extra for connections to specific services. Paul said he could see how this would superficially appeal to some media operators - they may be easily swayed by arguments that users of their site will get a better and faster experience than when they try to use that belonging to a rival.

But there is a huge risk there, he said.

He cited Apple’s closed iTunes store ecosystem, saying that there has been outrage when Apple have removed apps containing Wikileaks files or nudity from the app store. Why would we want to extend this kind of pick’n’choose model of service provision to ISPs? The recent furore over the presence of a “homophobic” app in the store shows how complex and nuanced this argument has become - in this case people who you might normally expect to see defend free speech over digital networks were clamouring for the app to be censored by Apple.

Bradshaw made “protect the public sphere” one of his summary points, explaining that there may be all sorts of ways that journalists are unwittingly already betraying sources through ignorance of technology. He suggested if you were meeting a vulnerable source, you should consider leaving your mobile phone at home, as it constantly tracks your position, and the records could end up subject to a court order. He also warned that publishing leaked documents online could risk including watermarks that gave away when and where an item was photocopied.

Earlier in his talk Paul had suggested that the press developed despite government regulation, broadcast media developed because of government regulation, and the net had sort of developed whilst governments weren’t watching.

They were desperate to redress that balance.

Paul ended by saying that information doesn’t want to be free, and technology doesn’t make you do anything. For that reason, he feels that anytime the state proposes to intervene in the internet sphere for the purposes of protecting children or for protecting the income of the music or film industry, journalists should view that intervention with the same scepticism they would greet interventions “for the public good” into private telephone calls or the interception of private post.

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