On the Internet, Let Freedom Ring

I’ve been writing this column for a long time (around 10 years!), and while the name has changed from time to time, the focus has always been on new and interesting innovations in technology and marketing. And if I’ve learned one thing over the years, it’s this: nothing ever good has come from limiting the openness and freedom that the Internet was founded upon.

Want some examples? Take a look at this chart I made chronicling the history of social media (yes, I use a broad definition) over time. Would services that we all depend on now like Blogger, Delicious, Flickr, YouTube, and Facebook have been possible if these providers had been held liable for the content posted on them? Yes, I know that that’s happening now, but I’d bet you a donut that the venture capitalists that funded these blockbuster services wouldn’t have been too eager to invest had they known that their investments could be wiped out by an RIAA or MPAA lawsuit before the services even got off of the ground.

Or look at the concept of “Net neutrality” which just suffered a huge blow with a recent ruling in favor of Comcast that basically says that Comcast can limit the bandwidth of certain users if it doesn’t like what they’re downloading. While it’s probably unlikely to happen due to the ad revenues generated, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that high-bandwidth consuming sites such as Vimeo or YouTube might have their datastreams throttled back by ISPs that want to run their own video services. Other services, such as the Steam gaming service (or any other software download service, for that matter) could also see themselves throttled back in favor of an ISP’s proprietary service. The result would be a fragmentation of the Internet into old-school-AOL-like “walled gardens” where the ISPs get to call the shots about what you’re seeing or doing … not unlike what China and Iran are doing now inside their own countries.

Call me a conspiracy theorist, but the virtual flood of ridiculous legislation such as the U.K.’s moronic “Digital Economy Bill” (an oxymoron if there ever was one), the upcoming Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, the ongoing battle over Net neutrality in the U.S. Congress, and a host of other restrictive legislation such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act combined with breathless fear-mongering media coverage over “cyber-security” (on NPR, no less!) seems like a coordinated effort by those who’d stand to gain by limiting Internet usage. At least in the short term.

Limits like these never work. While the recording industry continues to come up with one hare-brained scheme after another to hold on to a business model that isn’t viable anymore, or tries to quash innovation by holding back content, the rest of the world keeps turning to the Internet in increasing numbers as our primary source of news, information, and entertainment. In fact, a recent study by Arbitron and Edison Research has determined that the Internet has now surpassed TV as the “most essential media,” with more people willing to give up their TVs than give up their Internet connections.

Go talk to a teenager. Ask them how much TV they watch. Then ask them how much radio they listen to, newspapers they read, or magazines they browse. You’ll probably discover (as I have in focus group after focus group I’ve been running with teens over the past year) that most will admit that they watch little to no TV on their TVs but prefer to watch video online. A recent Nielsen report that shows that TV watching is up may seem like a paradox until you examine the year-to-year differences in timeshifting and online video consumption … both which have shown big spikes. Even if kids are watching “TV,” it’s not the broadcast consumption model that all of us older folks grew up with. Yet all the cable companies can do is keep trying to push ideas that harken back to the old days. Sad.

As an industry, we’ve all benefited from the Internet’s open and free nature. Many innovations in social media, online video, and publishing that we’ve gleefully sold ads in wouldn’t exist if the Internet wasn’t what it was. As marketers on “the most essential media,” it’s in our best interests to make sure that dinosaurs (cable, telephone companies, newspapers, the RIAA, and the MPAA) that haven’t come to grips with the fact that their business models are already dead start to rethink their models instead of fighting to maintain them at the expense of innovation and creativity.

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