Adapt or dieMay 3, 2012
For “traditional” media organisations the Internet is something that they just can’t seem to get a handle on. Instead of taking advantage of the opportunities that the Internet offers, they have been like rabbits caught in headlights. They’re paralysed because their revenue streams rely on a business model that the Internet has made redundant. Whether the media they try to sell is music, video or the written word, their inability to recognise that digital distribution through the Internet had changed the world allowed new competitors such as Apple, Amazon and Google to encroach upon their turf. Many of them are fighting for their very survival.
Instead of trying to adapt, they have tried to protect their existing revenue streams through the courts, the results often being exactly the opposite from that which they intended. After the recent ruling in the UK’s High Court where it was ordered that ISPs must block the Swedish site The Pirate Bay that site had twelve million more visitors than usual the day after the ruling.
The block is trivially easy to get around. After it was reported that my ISP had implemented the block it took me all of thirty seconds to be able to access The Pirate Bay’s homepage. Admittedly, I’m a technical person but it would take a non-technical person less than five minutes on Google to counteract the block.
There’s a common misconception that the Internet was designed to survive a nuclear war. However it is an extraordinarily robust entity. It’s almost infinitely flexible and a knowledgeable person can almost always find a way of routing around a block. The crude blocks that ISPs and media sites implement are usually implemented by rerouting a request for the network name (e.g.
) to a holding page telling you that you can’t access the site. Sites such as the BBC block access to the iPlayer site from non-UK addresses so that only UK TV license holders can access it.
I’m not going to go into detail how one might circumvent an ISPs blocking of a particular site but it can be as simple as using a different DNS server to find the address. It’s possible to use a proxy server or a legitimate business tool such as a VPN to make it look as if your request comes from somewhere else. For example, I could set up an account at
for less than £5 per month which would make my Internet connection originate from Canada where the Pirate Bay is not blocked. If I were in another country I could do the same thing and buy access to a proxy or VPN which made my IP address appear as if it were in the UK so I could watch BBC TV on iPlayer.
However, these clumsy blocking attempts are just the latest episode in the story of a struggle that has been going on for thousands of years. The Internet is probably the biggest revolution in human communication in history through its ability to distribute information around the world instantaneously. There two well known axioms; “Information is power” and “Information wants to be free”. These are diametrically opposed and history is littered with attempts by entities with vested interests who have tried to stay in their positions of power by limiting access to information and only distributing it in a manner which maintains their position.
In the Middle Ages, this power was held by the church who interpreted the Bible on behalf of everyone else. Illiteracy was the norm and therefore all that was known was what the church chose to tell. The Church had no reason to fear any laws being made against their interest, for they controlled how everyone else could see the world, including those who made the laws. They defined the problems and also the answers to those problems.
However, Gutenberg made it possible to bring Bibles to the masses, in any language required. This meant people could interpret the word of God by themselves in their own language. People started to question the position of the church. Of course the Church wanted to prevent the spread of what they saw as disinformation. They saw themselves as carriers of truth and fought to maintain it to the extent that the penalties for using a printing press gradually increased all over Europe. In January 1535 in France a law was passed stating that unauthorised use of a printing press carried the death penalty.
Of course, as illustrated by the fact that we have a wealth of historical and current printed material, it’s obvious that these penalties didn’t work. Between the introduction of the printing press and now, that power has been held by the operators of printing presses who have taken the place of the churches. They have observed and interpreted the world for their readers. In the last century the printing presses have had competition from radio and TV broadcasts, but the model remained the same in that a small elite has determined what the world should know and how they should relate to the events going on.
The Internet has changed everything because now that information is digital. It has made the shift from information to data and now anybody can publish to the world in seconds. Whether that data is a blog post like this one or an illegally obtained copy of the latest Hollywood blockbuster, once that data is out there, it can be perfectly duplicated immediately and made available for the world to interpret as information. Just like the church, the holders of information have not been able to deal with the situation either and are trying to maintain their position of power.
The gatekeepers of music and film, the record labels and film studios, are a very minor player in this emerging struggle. It is much, much larger than that. The Internet has the ability to redefine the entire previous classes of power because if you are able to tell your story you have influence. If you are arrogant enough to demand that people should just keep listening to you just because you have been listened to in the past when there was no other choice then you will lose your power of influence. The fact that any person on the planet can tell their story means that money can no longer necessarily buy belief in a story.
Information wants to be free. Adapt or die.