Valentine's Special: Queeries

This Valentine's Day, Alex Lambert looks at how the the internet provides a safe space for LGBTs to communicate and find love online

Valentine’s Day has come to be a day for couples to declare their love for one another. But, other than the The Couple, we shouldn't forget another prominent player in the modern Valentine’s Day cast - The Secret Admirer. This anonymous amour may have been popularised by the rise of the postal service which allowed Valentine’s to be sent anonymously. It has been tremendously popular since; I remember charity projects at school including anonymous Valentine’s deliveries – much to the embarrassment of those receiving gifts in lessons.

Playing the role of The Secret Admirer allows us to express ourselves honestly, if not personally. For queer people, anonymity can be an essential tool allowing them to explore who they are. Fast forward from the 20th century post office, to the 21st century internet, and things become a whole lot easier. 

The internet is a wonderful safe space, and one which has had a big impact on me. Somewhere in its vastness there are blogs, wikis, mailing lists, chat rooms, forums on any conceivable topic – an expanded Rule 34 of The Internet if you will. Each of those communities can be an isolated haven from the storm of society. As a young man struggling with accepting my sexuality and with no chance of accessing “real-life” support without outing myself, the internet was my source of information and community.

These spaces allowed me to take off, rather than don, a mask. I could go into these spaces and be honest about who I was. In an LGBT space the expectation is that you are LGB or T or at the very least, supportive. Even if there was someone in there who knows you, they are supportive and not a threat. Growing up, I was able to access websites, chatrooms, mailing lists and forums of other young people going through what I was; sharing stories and explaining a whole new language. These spaces showed me something that TV did not: being gay didn’t mean being Graham Norton or, later, Stuart Allen Jones, Vince Tyler or Nathan Maloney. I could be exactly who I was – quite why I chose to be Vince though, is a complete mystery. They were spaces where being homophobic earned you not laughs but warnings and the operator’s boot.

These safe spaces are only any good if they can be found and accessed. Smartphones and mobile internet are becoming more and more common place, particularly for young people. But school computers and many mobile operators offer (in some cases, as an opt-out system) content filtering.

The filtering services available and being used don’t just cover porn sites though. They also cover a wide variety under which also falls “Adult Content”, “Alternative Lifestyle” and “Gay and Lesbian” categories. None of these categories are code words for illegal content. They cover things that society frowns upon or that fall outside the established norms. In some cases they are things that some people happen to like making a lot of noise about. I am sure we’ve all seen bad examples of filtering, so here are some of my favourites:

 1) One story I heard recently had a sixth form student unable to access a Games Development course online prospectus entry because the word “game” was universally blocked - bye bye whole branches of mathematics.

2) My mobile internet provider, before I opted out of filtering, blocked Stonewall.

3) LGBT History Month was blocked by a school’s filter as “Adult Content”.

This level of content blocking is not healthy for young people needing advice and information, particularly in a society which is unable or unwilling to provide it. Now imagine your internet provider telling you that you are not able to access the information which may help you because it’s deemed “unsuitable” and is equated with pornography. Mental health issues such as depression, self harm and suicide have been shown to disproportionately affect queer youth, largely because of the immense pressure living in a society which expects something different.

Young people have to be able to access safe spaces. For some it is the only place they will be able to get appropriate sex education. For some it will allow them to understand who they are and work to accept that sooner. For some it is about understanding that there are other ideas outside the seemingly rigid boxes of Straight, Lesbian, Gay and Bi or Man, Woman and Trans. For some it will just be knowledge that they are not alone.

And isn’t that what Valentine’s Day is about - not being alone?


Alex Lambert is a queer geek from Manchester and if you chose him tonight, he'll take you to his favourite safe space – Bletchley Park. He tweets as @penwing.

Image: Tare Beth Robertson

Valentine's Special: Lovebirds

Social media has helped overcome the geographical divide - making it easier for lovebirds to tweet sweet nothings across continents on Valentine's Day!

I will be spending this Valentine’s Day alone. Indeed I may well find myself babysitting while my parents go out. I would be far more willing to accept this indignity if I were, in fact, single. Anyone else who is in a long distance relationship will understand my plight. They will also know how vital communication is. 

Facebook is indisputably the foremost social medium, at least for those seeking to maintain a romantic relationship. Officially confirming that one is “in a relationship” now constitutes a serious commitment. It has become something of a milestone. First date, first kiss, Facebook officialdom. Presumably this series ultimately ends in marriage or similar. I can’t say I would know.

Of course, this aspect of Facebook can be its most brutal. With a click of a button you can “cancel” your relationship, and let thousands of your closest friends know. But, leaving behind the purely descriptive, Facebook can facilitate healthy communication in its various forms. Most obviously, there is the celebrated Wall.

He’s a Northern boy. I’m a Home Counties girl. Public displays of affection were never on the cards. That is why our Facebook Wall-to-Wall looks fairly sparse, and incongruously formal. Apparently Facebook has quite the sense of humour, and sent my beloved the following message: 

“Reach out:
Laura MacPhee
Say hi.
Write on her Wall”

He did. He copied and pasted the above.

Other couples flood each other’s walls with affection, lest their devotion be questioned. Laughing at people like that brings more cynical couples closer. It is the online equivalent of mocking other couples in a restaurant (one my favourite Valentine’s Day pursuits).

Personally, I favour private messages, and the disinhibition they encourage. It seems less overtly formal than e-mail, and allows you to express your love more comprehensively than Twitter. Having said that, the latter does have substantial merits.

Twitter is a wonderful tool, for everyone, but especially for the long distance couple. It lets you continue to share your passions. You can also promote each other’s endeavours, in a display of loving support and solidarity. This is particularly effective where the couple are journalistically inclined.

Twitter can also be a good alternative form of communication. If both are Twitter addicts, this can be a good way to get the other’s attention. This is also helpful on occasions such as New Year’s Eve, when traditional mobile technology can be especially temperamental.

Katy Perry and Russell Brand have famously used Twitter to communicate whilst apart. Indeed, the recent decline in such tweeting has provoked speculation about cracks in their marriage. Twitter is clearly a very public forum for essentially private communication.

Instant messaging services have proven to be the most useful online device. Applications such as Google Chat allow users to have unlimited conversations for free. This is a fantastic facility as you can talk at any time, making it exceptionally convenient for busy couples.  

Social media have certainly eased the burden on long distance relationships. They have their own pitfalls though, and Google chat could never replace the intimacy of a phone call. I fear Facebook may not provide me with adequate solace as I share my Valentine’s Day with a glass of Rioja.

Perhaps I’ll tweet about it. 

 

Laura MacPhee is recent graduate of Oxford University, where she read Jurisprudence. She researches copyright related issues for the Open Rights Group. 

Image: CC-AT Flickr: kelsey_lovefusionphoto

Video: An interview with Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman speaks to Rich Millington from ORGZine about books, piracy, copyright and the internet

Neil Gaiman is a bestselling author and ORG patron. He has long been one of the top writers in modern comics, as well as writing books for readers of all ages. He is listed in the Dictionary of Literary Biography as one of the top ten living post-modern writers, and is a prolific creator of works of prose, poetry, film, journalism, comics, song lyrics, and drama. He is best known for his science fiction and fantasy work, including his best-selling graphic novel "The Sandman". He was awarded the Defender of Liberty Award by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in 1997, where he has since served on the Board for the last eight years. He has been blogging since 2001, as well as fundraising and raising awareness over free speech issues, and fighting (and winning) a landmark legal case on copyright int the US.

 

Image: CC-AT Flickr: roll_initiative (.guilty)

The Dark Side of Internet Freedom

In June 2009 thousands of young Iranians—smartphones in their hands—poured into the stuffy streets of Tehran to protest what they believed to be a fraudulent election. Tensions ran high, and some protesters, in an unthinkable offense, called for the resignation of Ayatollah Khamenei. But many Iranians found the elections to be fair; they were willing to defend the incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if needed. Iranian society, buffeted by the conflicting forces of populism, conservatism, and modernity, was facing its most serious political crisis since the 1979 revolution that ended the much-disliked reign of the pro-American Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

But this was not the story that most Western media chose to prioritize; instead, they preferred to muse on how the Internet was ushering in democracy into the country. “The Revolution Will Be Twittered” was the first in a series of blog posts published by the Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan a few hours after the news of the protests broke. In it, Sullivan zeroed in on the resilience of the popular microblogging site Twitter, arguing that “as the regime shut down other forms of communication, Twitter survived. With some remarkable results.” In a later post, even though the “remarkable results” were still nowhere to be seen, Sullivan proclaimed Twitter to be “the critical tool for organizing the resistance in Iran” but didn’t bother to quote any evidence to support his claim. Only a few hours after the protests began, his blog emerged as a major information hub that provided almost instantaneous links to Iran-related developments. Thousands of readers who didn’t have the stamina to browse hundreds of news sites saw events unfolding in Iran primarily through Sullivan’s eyes. (And, as it turned out, his were a rather optimistic pair.)

It didn’t take long for Sullivan’s version of events to gain hold elsewhere in the blogosphere—and soon enough, in the traditional media as well. Michelle Malkin, the right-wing blogging diva, suggested that “in the hands of freedom-loving dissidents, the micro-blogging social network is a revolutionary samizdat—undermining the mullah-cracy’s information blockades one Tweet at a time.” Marc Ambinder, Sullivan’s colleague at the Atlantic, jumped on the bandwagon, too; for him, Twitter was so important that he had to invent a new word, “protagonal,” to describe it. “When histories of the Iranian election are written, Twitter will doubtless be cast a protagonal technology that enabled the powerless to survive a brutal crackdown,” wrote Ambinder on his blog. The Wall Street Journal’s Yochi Dreazen proclaimed that “this [revolution] would not happen without Twitter,” while National Public Radio’s Daniel Schorr announced that “in Iran, tyranny has run afoul of technology in the form of the Internet, turning a protest into a movement.”

Soon technology pundits, excited that their favorite tool was all over the media, were on the case as well. “This is it. The big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media,” proclaimed New York University’s Clay Shirky in an interview with TED.com.

Twitter seemed omnipotent—certainly more so than the Iranian police, the United Nations, the U.S. government, and the European Union. Not only would it help to rid Iran of its despicable leader but also convince ordinary Iranians, most of whom vehemently support the government’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear enrichment, that they should stop their perpetual fretting about Israel and simply go back to being their usual peaceful selves.

Iran’s seemed like a revolution that the whole world was not just watching but also blogging, tweeting, Googling, and YouTubing. It only took a few clicks to get bombarded by links that seemed to shed more light on events in Iran—quantitatively, if not qualitatively—than anything carried by what technologists like to condescendingly call “legacy media.” While the latter, at least in their rare punditry-free moments of serenity, were still trying to provide some minimal context to the Iranian protests, many Internet users preferred to simply get the raw deal on Twitter, gorging on as many videos, photos, and tweets as they could stomach. Such virtual proximity to events in Tehran, abetted by access to the highly emotional photos and videos shot by protesters themselves, led to unprecedented levels of global empathy with the cause of the Green Movement. But in doing so, such networked intimacy may have also greatly inflated popular expectations of what it could actually
achieve.

As the Green Movement lost much of its momentum in the months following the election, it became clear that the Twitter Revolution so many in the West were quick to inaugurate was nothing more than a wild fantasy. And yet it still can boast of at least one unambiguous accomplishment: If anything, Iran’s Twitter Revolution revealed the intense Western longing for a world where information technology is the liberator rather than the oppressor, a world where technology could be harvested to spread democracy around the globe rather than entrench existing autocracies. The irrational exuberance that marked the Western interpretation of what was happening in Iran suggests that the green-clad youngsters tweeting in the name of freedom nicely fit into some preexisting mental schema that left little room for nuanced interpretation, let alone skepticism about the actual role the Internet played at the time.  

 

From the book: The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom.  Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of The Perseus Books Group.  Copyright © 2011 All rights reserved. CC License does not apply to this extract.

Image:

The self-publishing revolution

Whilst the internet provides lots of creative opportunities for writers to engage with their readers, the suggestion that it will render the publishing industry redundant is nothing but an unfounded myth

The standard unpublished writer’s grievance goes: How do you get your work noticed in a world where publishers no longer accept unsolicited submissions? The website of one large publisher frankly states: “If you are seeking publication, it is recommended you appoint an agent to represent you”. Another’s offers the discouraging news that “research shows that less than 1% of unsolicited manuscripts sent to publishers achieve publication”.

Onlookers might well blame the ruthless, profit-driven mentality of the publishing industry, which has no time for the talented artist searching for deserved recognition. But the reality is that the sheer quantity of manuscripts being offered up to the publishing ‘gatekeepers’ has made it impossible to sift out the gold alone. Enter, the literary agent – a preliminary arbiter in the separation of wheat from chaff.  Yet, agents themselves often only take on manuscripts upon recommendation.

Increasingly, further barriers are emerging between author and the longed-for dream of publication, in the (often costly) form of editing services and courses that prepare a manuscript for agency applications. Why? Because many agencies do not have the resources to hold an author’s hand as they develop a project from initial spark to acceptable typescript – and why would they risk an unknown, unqualified writer when there is so much out there to choose from?

When faced with such discouragement, it is tempting for an author to look beyond tradition publishing routes. With the resources available for marketing and self-promotion online, and the rapid expansion of the e-book market, digital self-publication may start to seem like a simpler and more lucrative route.

Indeed, the award winning writer Hari Kunzru (published by Penguin’s Hamish Hamilton imprint) stated, “one of the issues of being a writer published in a commercial publishing setting is that you don’t have a great deal of control over how you’re presented by the publisher”. He added, “It’s much nicer to have a direct relationship with your readers”, predicting that in years to come, “the relationship built with readers directly, using the web, will be very important.”

Author blogs and social media mean readers have direct access to authors they like to read; conversely, authors can present themselves exactly as they wish, rather than being subject to the control of publishers.

Chris Harrison, an author who has had great success with his Italian travel memoir, Head Over Heel (Nicholas Brealey Publishing), is also disillusioned with the role played by the publishing industry. Reflecting on his experiences, he observes, “History has proven publishers to be wrong, to be very wrong, and to be out of touch with what readers want”.

Harrison cites the travel writer Stephen Clarke as an example of how to achieve success without a publisher: “A Year in the Merde was rejected by everyone to the point where he self-published. It did well on Amazon and through word of mouth, and now he’s written five sequels all published by Black Swan”.

The American master of business self-help books Stephen Covey demonstrated how lucrative self-publication could be in 2009, when he made the headlines by selling his e-books directly to Amazon, and bypassing the publisher of his hard copy books. Contrary to expectation, publication by a particular house does not necessarily mean an author must involve them in selling e-book versions – as long as the copyright in the arrangements are not owned by the publisher.

Many older contracts do not specifically assign or licence digital rights to the publishers – especially those that were made before the relevant technology had been invented. To their surprise and horror, Random House discovered this in 2001 upon losing a case put against Rosetta Books, who had published e-book versions of Random House’s backlist without permission. Although there is an ongoing scrabble by publishers to update older contracts to include digital rights, many e-book opportunities are still available to willing and entrepreneurial authors.

So, it seems there are many reasons why authors should look after their own book projects in the digital marketplace. But the difficulty lies in actually attracting surfers to your website, subscribers to your blog, followers to your tweets, fans to your Facebook page, and—most importantly—how to convert these people into customers.

Achieving this still requires opportunity, expertise, and investment – whether it be time, money or both. Whilst authors like Kunzru, Clarke and Covey may have these resources, others might not be so well endowed. Established authors already have a fan base which simply needs to be cultivated. But the process of self-marketing is not as easy for new authors who are starting from scratch.

For many who are not confident or qualified enough to market themselves, the expertise of a publisher is invaluable. Many of these authors are relieved to pass over the responsibility of selling to other parties. Fiction writer and historian, Stella Tillyard, explained how she was “very, very interested in the quality of the work and the editorial process”, but beyond that, was largely happy to let her publisher and agent deal with the logistics of publication and sales.

But is this not simply laziness on the part of authors who might otherwise retain more control, have a more genuine relationship with their readers, and earn more from their books? For some, perhaps. But, as Tillyard points out, “writers are very, very different”. For the majority, collaboration with a publisher makes for a supportive relationship that facilitates imagination and creativity, and enables ideas to reach a larger audience.

New author, Mark Wernham, for instance, has developed an app called Machine 69 to accompany his novel-in-progress – the metaphysical adventure story Jefferson Greenspan Saves The Word? The app uses words and images to enhance ‘standalone moments’ in the text. Although it is available on his website, a presence on the Vintage Books blog will mean much greater exposure for Wernham.

Indeed, apps are a medium which have enormous potential for growth and development. Publishers, particularly of children’s books, agree that app development is much more fruitful with author collaboration and the pooling of resources between author and publisher.

There is no doubt that for many authors, opportunities for connectivity, communication, project management, promotion and outsourcing presented by the internet will set them free from having to conform to a publisher’s way of doing things; at a recent digital conference at City University London, Canadian publisher Bob Kasher referred to a “self-publishing revolution”. However, he also pointed out that “disruptive technology is nothing new to the publishing industry”. He spoke of how publishers must continue to develop as “enablers and also gatekeepers” in the dissemination of content. However close to a budding author’s finger-tips the technology may be, there will always be a need to distinguish and market the content.

As online publication proliferates, this selection, validation and qualifying role will continue to add value to the efforts of those authors who have yet to make the contacts they need to reach their readership, as well as those who do not have the time, energy or inclination to market their own material in a crowded and ruthless commercial environment.

The publishing process may be evolving faster than ever, but the added value of traditional publishers means that we are not likely to see the fall of the Houses of Publishing just yet. 

 

Eleanor Wheeler read English at Cambridge University, and is currently studying for an MA in Publishing at City University London.

Image: CC-AT Flickr: striatic

Talkin’ ’bout a revolution

Hari Kunzru speaks to Iman Qureshi about political dissidence, information libertarianism, multiculturalism – and the truth about Twitter

It’s no secret that Kunzru—a sometime tech journalist, editor and TV presenter—is an aficionado for all things shiny and tech-related. Having previously worked for Wired UK, an electronic arts programme on Sky TV, and Mute Magazine, and having been an ardent supporter of digital rights and freedoms, his own uses of technology as a writer, are extensive. This is a man who's in the know.

“I’m on the web” he states proudly, as if it is the defining factor of his identity. “I have a blog which has everything other than full-text novels.” Indeed, his blog—which makes available all his short stories, journalism, and photographs—is lovingly tended to, while his twitter-feed is a cascade of chirrups.

Kunzru seems to relish this direct relationship with his readers, and although he sees great opportunity for creativity on the internet, he is also wary of its limitations. “There’s the question of free distribution and how you actually carry on sustaining yourself as a writer in an era of infinite reproducibility” he cautions. “I suspect that in ten years time, the agent-editor-writer model may change slightly.”

But sneering sceptics and non-believers of the blogosphere and twitter-verse should come to Kunzru for guidance. Twitter, particularly, which first started out as an experiment for him, has now become something of an addiction. 

“I can spend a lot of time far away from what I’m supposed to be doing, which is actually finishing a novel,” he says, almost reminding himself of this fact. “There’s a quality of attention that you need to write a novel that is certainly opposed to the constant bombardment of new information… but as long as I can steel myself to switch it off!" He adds, laughing, “A good friend of mine—a well known novelist—obviously wasn’t dealing with it very well, so he took a craft knife to the internet connection!”

Much to my relief, Kunzru assures me that he’s not quite reached that point of mania himself. Besides distraction, does Twitter have any other productive uses?

Nodding sincerely, he responds, "As input, it’s the nearest thing I have to customising a newsfeed. As output – there have been two occasions that social media has helped me get something out there. I was contacted by Arundhati Roy—a crowd had just attacked her house in New Delhi—and she decided she wanted to make a statement, and for what ever reason, so didn’t trust the mainstream news media. So I got that in my inbox, copied and pasted it into a blog post and tweeted about it. My poor old service provider – my website actually fell over because there was so much traffic on it.”

The second instance was when Kunzru was in Turkey for the European Writers Parliament: “I was giving a key note speech which was quite a controversial one, because I was challenging the Turks on various laws which are used to penalise writers for defaming ‘Turkishness’. But I could pretty much sit down from the platform, put it up on my blog, tweet about it, and people could get my version of things rather than a reporter's take. So I immediately had control of how something controversial and potentially damaging to me if it was reported in the wrong way, was actually presented in the media.”

Kunzru confesses that one of his key influences was in the early 90s, when he met a group of people—scientists, artists, techies, activists—who came together to talk about network culture. “And how it had a potential for liberation, and had a potential for making another sort of culture” he details enthusiastically. “And there are people still working along those lines. Something like WikiLeaks that comes seemingly out of the blue into the mainstream discourse, actually has a huge background in open source, in the kind of libertarian hacker stuff that came from the West Coast in the 1980s.”

It is in this way that Kunzru sees tremendous potential for political dissidence in technology. For him, the importance of information libertarianism cannot be overestimated. “I’ve been following people who are tweeting from the student demos, or like with the Assange trial – I was following people inside the courtroom.” But of course, it's a two way street, as he astutely points out that the American State Department use social media as a tool for US foreign policy interests. In theory, he argues, it separates the US from places like China or Iran. But it doesn't always work that way. 

Although the internet enables pluralism, democracy, transparency and government accountability, it is—by no stretch of the imagination—utopian. There are powerful forces at play, which are also using technology to systematically dismantle many of our given rights and freedoms. As an active campaigner and Vice President of English PEN, Kunzru voices his concern about the deterioration of internet freedom: 

“If something disappears from the DNS, that is a serious censorship issue. We’ve seen that with WikiLeaks recently, online payment systems getting meshing into this. If you can’t use PayPal and you can’t use Visa because the State Department’s phoned up your payment provider, is that censorship?" – a rhetorical question, of course. 

“I care about free speech, and there are a lot of different ways in which it’s being eroded. It’s not just the government – it’s also corporate control. The ultimate arbiters in this information infrastructure are often corporations who have particular interests.

“We have an increasingly database state," he explains. "The collection of information, the sharing of information, and incredibly sophisticated networks of visual and data surveillance—we leave data trails all around us.”

Kunzru is also deeply perturbed by the way in which authorities are exploiting technology. He cites the example of Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) who collect information on protests mainly by photographing and videoing people. “And they’re very, very unwilling to be photographed and videoed themselves,” he states almost indignantly. “There’a a group called Fitwatch who tend to confront and photograph the people who are photographing protests – they’re often arrested."

He elaborates on this point, arguing that there is not enough awareness about the potential dangers of such a condition. “Although in the US, civil rights have gone down the toilet in recent years, at least they have this tradition of the individual citizen having rights against the government.” Kunzru suggests that these do not exist in Britain.

“The fact is,” he highlights with a disturbing air of prescience, “we need to plan for all possible eventualities, and to plan for the eventuality that one day, there might be people in government who are not people of good will.” 

At this point, I pick up on the fact that things seem to be going from bad to worse in our post-9/11 society. He is inclined to agree, using the example of public discourse about Muslims. "There are elements within European political culture which want to goad Muslims into taking offence and reacting in a certain way, so that they can point towards that reaction and say in some way that Islam is essentially primitive," he observes shrewdly. 

So do you think, I ask tentatively, that multiculturalism in Britain has failed?

"I've seen enormous changes—positive changes—as a result of the practice of multiculturalism: the systematic teaching of respect as a foundation for relationships between religious groups, ethnic groups and so on" he responds thoughtfully. "But what has happened more recently is that it has become more hollowed out – it's become an excuse for people to retreat into their own corners, people say, 'Well, I demand respect for my cultural practices, I have no respect for your cultural practices, and I certainly have no interest in blending.' This is contrary to the original notion that, out of this mutual respect would evolve a shared culture in which people would take the best of each other's practices and go forward."

Perhaps upon hearing the bleak negativity of his own words, he clarifies more promisingly, "And that's still something which I think is viable and valid, but I think that the idea of identity politics and the kind of cultural essentialism is having some negative effect." 

But how do we fix things?

Well – exactly, he agrees. "If we get rid of multiculturalism, my question would be, what would be put in its place? Because we don't want to go back to the notion of only one culture. I think at this point it would be quite useful to emphasise the things that people share across cultures – human rights is a good foundation for talking about that.

"And I think it's time we talked about class," he asserts, boldly. "This idea of  a 'classless society' is just wishful thinking which obscures the fact that, actually, there are huge social divisions in Britain." Kunzru calls for a political vocabulary which adequately addresses such issues – "In the kind of culture that's generally visible, we're oddly silent about them."

"In fact," he continues, "the more productive cultural current in Britain comes out of people who engage with technology..." So tech-culture is, once again, where the power lies, I point out, half joking. 

"Yes" he replies, seriously. "I think we need to make ordinary people aware about the possible consequences of a networked society... And now we're moving into a period in Britain of potentially quite extreme social confrontation, and these things are going to come to the fore." 

Kunzru says this with an spine-tingling level of gravity and self-assuredness. Perhaps what makes his words all the more pertinent are the series of protests and revolts taking place not just in the UK, but the world over. 

I'm willing to bet that twitter-sceptics reading this have temporarily lost their former sneer. I know I have. 

 

Iman Qureshi is a freelance journalist and currently editor of ORGZine. She tweets as @ImanQureshi.

Image: Jamie Diamond

Mickey Mouse Protection

Musician Kathryn Rose speaks to Milena Popova about her music, copyright, creativity and orphan works

There is a reason US copyright law is sometimes “affectionately” known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act; there is a strange coincidence at play here – every time the copyright on Walt Disney’s early creations is about to expire, US copyright terms get magically extended by another few years. Currently, a work is under copyright both in the US and the UK for 70 years after the author’s death. This might make sense for Disney—at least someone is still making money from Walt’s creations—but for the vast majority of creative works out there, this lengthy copyright term is an issue.

Seventy years after the author’s death is a very long time to keep track of who owns the copyright on, say, a documentary photograph, a poem scribbled on the back of a receipt, a short film or a hastily composed piece of music. Often records are lost, and even living authors cannot be identified or contacted, so their works become “orphan works”. This essentially makes them off limits for subsequent creators: you cannot show, use or remix a copyrighted work without the author’s permission, and if you can’t get hold of the author, or don’t even know who they are, you have a problem.

I asked musician and composer, Kathryn Rose, what impact orphan works had on her work and creativity. Kathryn is a member of the trio Brigantia Consort, who play a range of tunes, from early music to folk and improvisation. Improvisation in particular is often inspired by other works: paintings, photographs, poems. 

“We liked one poem (James Fenton's "Wind”) so much, we decided we'd like to use it in a concert we put on last summer, if we could get permission” said Kathryn. “We were thinking of printing it in the programme or maybe projecting it on a screen. The author is still alive, but when we contacted the rights company by e-mail, we didn't get any reply at all.”

In some cases there are other ways of contacting the rightsholder, but the administrative burden this puts on artists is not sustainable. When putting on a concert, the last thing you want to do is spend hours listening to the rights management company’s hold music.

“As the poem is available online,” Kathryn explained, “it's quite hard to see how much damage we would do by printing it in a concert programme. But existing copyright legislation says that if we did so, we would be breaking the law, and as a small ensemble we don't really want to take that risk, even though many others do.”

The trio were ultimately forced to find a different piece to use, which didn’t fit quite as well. Perhaps most unfortunate is the fact that it is a missed opportunity for creativity, rather than a financial loss. In effect, it becomes a case of cultural impoverishment.

Kathryn’s work as a composer is also affected by the lack of clarity around orphan works, particularly with texts she would like to set to music:

"Sometimes I'll read something and immediately start to imagine how it would sound sung, what harmonies I might use or what the melody is up to – but I'm not going to follow that up and actually do the work of composing something if I don't have permission.

"My experiences with trying to get permission have not exactly been encouraging, so I try not to look too hard at anything recent, and I'm essentially working with a time-lag of a century or more, as I wait for authors and artists to have died long enough ago that I can use their work."

It is that last comment—about working with a time lag—that should give you pause. As Professor James Boyle (@thepublicdomain), pointed out at last year’s ORGCon, we are the first generation in history who are cut off from their own culture. The extension of copyright terms that we've seen in the past few decades—from as little as 14 years to a retrospective extension to 70 years after the creator's death—has the effect that, barring a deliberate choice from the creator, our culture is not accessible to be built on by others within the same generation, or even several generations on. Yet, it is widely held that the majority of works exhaust their commercial viability after only five years, and most works which copyright term extensions have put beyond our reach, are actually orphan works.

Photographs and films degrading in archives, and cases of teachers not being able to use pictures in their class, are some other examples of where these flawed laws inhibit education and creativity. 

There are, however, some great initiatives to make progress in the area of orphan works, championed for instance by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in the US, where the last attempt to legislate on the matter failed miserably in 2008. Let's hope ORG along with other organisations, artists, musicians and other rightsholders continue to promote and fight for the cause in both this country and Europe as a whole.

 

Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She blogs at milenapopova.eu and tweets as @elmyra

Image: CC-AT Flickr: hiimniko

Divide and rule

With the UK government and BT threatening net neutrality, Joel Stein looks at its history and why it is a fundamental ideal to uphold

Earlier this month, BT reignited the net neutrality debate in the UK with the launch of its new Content Connect service, which lets ISPs charge content providers for high-speed delivery of their data. So what is net neutrality? How has the concept evolved? And what are the implications of BT’s announcement?

Net neutrality is the idea that all data flowing across the internet is treated as having equal importance. This doesn’t mean that people get the internet for free, or that you can’t pay more for a higher quality service. But it does mean that service providers must treat all web traffic equally, and not seek payment from other entities to ‘fast-track’ their data.

This idea, central to a free and open internet, has a heritage that stretches back well beyond the information age; ‘common carrier’ regulations were put in place during the early days of the railway – these prevented the owners and operators of the rail network from discriminating against cargo on the basis of its destination or owner, and similar rules were later applied to telegraph and telephone networks (albeit not consistently).

Ten years ago, founder of Creative Commons, Lawrence Lessig, was already warning that ISPs running cable services had “exercised their power to ban certain kinds of applications (specifically, those that enable peer-to-peer service) [and] blocked particular content (advertising from competitors, for example) when that content was not consistent with their business model.” In 2003, Tim Wu, a professor at Colombia Law School, proposed legislation that might deal with these kinds of issues.

By 2005, consumers, ISPs and cable companies in the US were debating the concept of net neutrality, and, in 2006, AT&T agreed to adhere to net neutrality provisions as part of its $85 billion merger with BellSouth. This agreement, despite containing a couple of exceptions to the principle, was the first step in establishing what net neutrality really meant in a practical context, although Republican Commissioners warned that the FCC’s approval of the merger shouldn’t be treated as a ruling on net neutrality.

Here in the UK, the debate took longer to fully materialise. In 2007, then Ofcom policy chief Douglas Scott indicated that the regulator planned a “hands-off” approach to the issue. Speaking rather more bluntly, Virgin Media CEO Neil Berkett declared in a 2008 interview that “this net neutrality thing is a load of bollocks.” In June 2010, Ofcom published a discussion paper on the subject, but Culture Minister Ed Vaizey appeared to have made his decision already, stating in November that ISPs should be free to experiment with the way they deliver content, and explicitly suggesting the possibility of “a two-sided market, where consumers and content providers could choose to pay for differing levels of quality of service.” He later claimed that his speech had been misinterpreted. Around the same time, a consultation carried out by the European Commission revealed serious concerns about the effects of ‘traffic management’ and bandwidth throttling on the future of networks.

Back in the US, the FCC set out its plan for safeguarding net neutrality in 2009, and invited input from stakeholders. Google and Verizon proposed a new legislative framework in August 2010, suggesting, contrary to an April 2010 court ruling that imposed limits on the FCC’s authority to regulate the internet, that the FCC should be given the power to enforce net neutrality. However, a long and troubling list of exemptions in the Google/Verizon proposal left critics highly suspicious of its stated goals.

On 22 December 2010, having identified a number of legal justifications for its regulatory intervention, the FCC implemented a new set of rules (the Open Internet Order) in a move it claimed would protect net neutrality. Unfortunately, the order appeared to be “riddled with loopholes and exemptions” and could set a legal precedent for more sinister regulation of the internet by the FCC in the future.

Despite the evident weaknesses in the FCC’s new rules, which are favourable to ISPs and cable companies in many ways, Verizon have this week decided to fight the legislation in the US Court of Appeals. Verizon argue that the FCC’s “assertion of authority goes well beyond any authority provided by Congress, and creates uncertainty for the communications industry, innovators, investors and consumers.” Verizon claim they are committed to “preserving an open internet,” but they are opposed to regulation of any kind. The idea that net neutrality should be left to those who stand to profit from a two-tier internet is perverse to say the least, but that is essentially how they are presenting the issue.

In the UK, Ofcom is due to clarify its stance on net neutrality later this year. The current situation, though, is worrying. BT has recently launched its priority Content Connect service, sparking fierce criticism. The Open Rights Group’s Jim Killock has said that “This is a sea change in the way that content is delivered by ISPs. It is essentially them saying: ‘Rather than delivering whatever content is on the internet as best we can, here are our services that we will deliver through our own network.’” BT has denied that Content Connect will pave the way for a two-tier internet, but the reality is that a two-tier system would be profitable for them. BT claims to support the concept of net neutrality, but has also said that ISPs should be free to charge content providers for a ‘higher quality’ delivery mechanism. Clearly, there is a gaping inconsistency here. Like Verizon, BT want to be trusted, but are doing little to inspire faith.

Towards the end of 2010, the Open Rights Group and 19 other organisations including eBay, Skype, Which, We7, Yahoo and the NUJ sent an open letter to Ed Vaizey demanding that the government enshrines net neutrality in law. Since BT’s announcement, this issue has become increasingly urgent. Net neutrality protects the rights of end-users to access information freely, but it is also fundamentally necessary for competition, creativity and innovation. This isn’t just about the preserving the democratic architecture of the internet, but also about integrating it as productively as possible with the market. A two-tier internet would inevitably lead to a world where content provision is monopolised by a few big players. This isn’t just a cultural crime, but also something which could distort the economy in profound and perilous ways.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales thinks that net neutrality fears remain “largely theoretical”. This is surely naive. At multiple levels, commercial forces have already colonised the internet, increasingly threatening its status as an open domain. Make no mistake, net neutrality is under attack, and those that seek to defend it must be ready for battle.

 

Joel Stein has an MA in Media & Journalism. He blogs for the Insight Film Festival and tweets as @joelstein

Image: CC-AT-SA Flickr: morgaine

“Damn the man!”

With DRM continually imposing restrictions, Milena Popova presents some better and more viable alternatives which uphold market principles, but also maintain consumers' choice

A couple of recent ORGZine articles have focused on how DRM is broken: how it denies you access to the content and devices you’ve legitimately bought, how it limits consumer choice, and how it simply doesn’t work because for every coder out there creating new forms of DRM there are a couple of thousand hackers who see them as a new challenge. Does that mean it’s all doom and gloom for the content industry? Will we have no new music, movies or books, because people aren’t prepared to pay for them any longer? Hardly. Here’s a brief overview of some of the exciting new business models in content distribution which are springing up all around us. I don’t know exactly what the future of content looks like, but here are a few guesses and extrapolations from what I'm seeing already. This is just the beginning.

There is, by now, more than just anecdotal evidence that—for certain types of content—putting it up for free on the internet will actually increase your sales. Books are a good example here and Cory Doctorow demonstrates this quite nicely - all his books are available for free from his website and he's selling loads of them. I suspect part of the reason why this works so nicely with books is that we bibliophiles already have a special relationship with dead-tree versions of things, we like to own them, and we like to support the people who create them. It's in the culture.

Putting your stuff up for free on the internet does two things. Firstly, it helps you reach a wider audience. A lot of people who wouldn't fork out the best part of a tenner on a book or CD will happily download it for free. They might find they like the book or CD, and that might make them pay up, or it might make them recommend it/share it with their friends, and some of them might pay up. Secondly, it allows you to price-discriminate in the most finely-tuned way possible – it allows you to charge every single person who comes across your content exactly what they're willing to pay for it. This is actually a good thing for content creators: it maximises your (the creator's) profits while the consumer pays for the content according to how much they value it - no more, no less. This may mean I get lots more content more cheaply now, or I focus on giving my favourite artists more money - the choice is up to me. Price discrimination is traditionally seen as Evil by economists who believe in the Market. In many cases it is. In this case, I have yet to see an argument to convince me.

I think another trend we're likely to see is a move away from big blockbuster type content—bands like Metallica, or the Foo Fighters, movies like Avatar, big-budget TV shows, etc—towards a wider range of smaller artists. Being a rock star may not make one or two bands a year hugely, astronomically rich, but more artists should hopefully be able to make a living off their art.

We're going to see a wider variety of distribution models. My favourite example at the moment is the last Indelicates album which comes as a "pay-what-you-like" download, CD, iTunes type formats, CD plus various levels of extras such as art books, and the super special edition where Julia and Simon Indelicate rock up at your house, perform the album, record the performance and sign over the rights to the master. Amanda Palmer is also experimenting with different ways of making money, including pay-what-you-like releases and webcasts where she auctions off her finance's daughter. Ditto Zoe Keating.

Kickstarter looks like a great way of funding art too: you get people to pledge to fund your project. If you reach your pledge target within a certain time, you get the money, but if you don’t your supporters don’t get charged. You can further incentivise people to pledge money by offering special goodies and unique opportunities - let them have their name in the credits, send them a complementary copy of the finished work, or any other kinds of extras you can come up with. I’ve pledged to a couple of projects, one of which got funded and the other didn’t. I got a free album download off one of them and a free ebook off the other, and I still stay in touch with both projects and am likely to spend more money with them in the future.

Consumers' relationship with art and artists will change. It will be a lot more direct. Art isn't the shiny disc that you buy from Tesco's anymore. It's the project that your favourite artist announces on their blog and asks you for funding and posts updates about and that you wait for with increasing excitement. How we find new artists we like will change. I did a little calculation last year on how much money I'd spent on music over the previous six months, and had to stop counting at the £300 mark lest I gave myself a heart attack. Of all of the musicians whose music I bought, I'd only discovered one or two through the radio. One set were street musicians whose CD I bought. A few I'd discovered through other artists I liked - Amanda Palmer through Neil Gaiman, Zoe Keating and the Indelicates through Amanda Palmer, etc. One CD I'd meant to buy for a while and was prompted by seeing the artist in an episode of a TV series which I was catching up with online. A substantial number I discovered through friends pointing me in their direction and giving me free samples to listen to.

Of course there will be free-riders. Not everyone will pay for the content they download for free, even if they really like it. But those people might point their friends in the direction of that artist - there's a reason why I'm plugging a bunch of artists in the previous paragraphs! And even if they don't, you know what? That's okay too. As long as there are enough of us willing to pay for our art so that artists can make a living, that's fine. It'll be a bit like public services: some people pay their taxes, some people find all the loopholes, some people claim more benefits than they're allowed. It's not always 100% fair, but in the grand scheme of things, it works.

I think the sooner artists start engaging with their fanbase in a direct way and looking for creative ways to distribute their art, the more successful they will be. Content consumers need reeducating, and those artists who reach out to do that education first will be ahead of the game. Those who hide behind their record labels, sue their fans and see them as the enemy... well, we'll see, but I'm certainly not buying CDs from Metallica anymore - haven't ever since they helped shut down Napster.

The distribution models I've talked about don't necessarily suit all types of media. They work well for books and music, but they may not work well for the type of TV and movies that we're currently used to. But we're already seeing innovation in those sectors too, with developments like Hulu, or being able to buy individual episodes of series from iTunes. 

Bottom line: change is happening. There will be winners and losers, it'll be a long and difficult process. But the sooner we collectively stop sticking our heads in the sand and admit that DRM is a dead-end, and consumers take some responsibility themselves, the sooner we can start figuring out - together, rather than as enemies - what we want the future to look like.

 

Milena is an economics & politics graduate, an IT manager, and a campaigner for digital rights, electoral reform and women's rights. She blogs at milenapopova.eu and tweets as @elmyra

Image: CC-AT Flickr: flattop341

A Weekend Treat

Deadline Hollywood releases the full screenplay of The Social Network online

Aaron Sorkin—the genius behind The West Wing—is possibly one of the most talented screenwriters kicking about Hollywood these days. His latest triumph, The Social Network, has scooped up so many awards and accolades that they've had to give this list its own Wikipedia page.

Adapted from Ben Mezrich's novel, The Accidental Billionaires, The Social Network is a fictional account of the story behind the iconic social networking site, Facebook

Deadline appears to have been given permission to release the full screenplay along with an exclusive interview with Aaron Sorkin himself - it makes for some delectable weekend reading. 

Enjoy!

 

Image: The Social Network

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Schmidt Happens

Wendy M. Grossman responds to "loopy" statements made by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt in regards to censorship and encryption.

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