May 152017

Next Saturday, on the 21st of May, I’ll be sitting on a panel for the Talking Justice series on how digital disruption is impacting on journalism, individual rights and social justice. This is an early draft of what I plan to be saying about the topic.

The series will be held at Bendigo’s Ulumbarra Theatre in regional Victoria, tickets are available from the Loddon Campaspe Community Law Centre website.

In the middle of last year I stopped writing for The Australian after their budget for freelance tech journalists ran out. Over the previous two years the newspaper had been my main source of income.

To be fair to The Australian’s management, this was not surprising as at the turn of the century the paper’s IT section was the bible of the nation’s technology industry, often running to 64 pages as standalone liftout. It was a true river of gold for News Limited that employed over a dozen staff and contributors.

Now, on a good week there’s a couple of adverts in the single page section and it employs two and half full time equivalent staff.

The decline of The Australian’s IT section is not in itself remarkable – almost every newspaper has the same story as advertisers have moved away. In the case of the Australian IT, the employment adverts that funded the section’s heyday long ago moved to dedicated online sites.

How a million flowers didn’t bloom

For the broader media – including most news websites – Google and Facebook’s dominance in online advertising has meant even the digital dimes have become scarcer. Many of the ‘born digital’ or ‘web native’ publications are just as cash starved as their incumbent competitors, albeit with far lower cost bases.

The drying up of advertisers’ cash has left the media model in tatters and the early promise of the internet allowing millions of new media sites to bloom has long ago proved false leaving the world of journalism a hungry, desperate place.

For cyber utopians like myself who believed the web would usher in a new era where power  could be held accountable through citizens’ websites, blogs and social social media accounts, that disappointment is even greater as the internet is seeing power further centralised with extensive data dossiers being collected on every individual.

An example of just how comprehensively data is being collected and used is shown in this clip from the 2008 US Presidential election campaign.

That description is almost innocent by today’s standards as there are many, many more data points with social media, connected devices and – most of all – our smartphones tracking every moment of our lives and activities.

Imbalance of Power

A good example of how data is being used against citizens is the recent Not My Debt debacle where the government and Centrelink misused information to harass social security recipients.

Stung by the public outrage, the agency saw fit to leak a critic’s confidential personal data to a journalist, an action later justified by a departmental secretary as necessary to protect their organisation,. A view seemingly legitimised by both the Australian Federal Police and the responsible minister who both saw no legal or ethical problem with such behaviour.

That a experienced and long serving journalist along with a metropolitan newspaper saw fit to publish that lady’s personal circumstances also tells us the mainstream media, struggling as it is with both money and ethics, may not necessarily the protector of our civil liberties.

Rights and data brokers

Governments are not the only risk to our civil liberties, our connected lives give businesses huge control over what we say and do as well.

With the Internet of Things our cars, smoke alarms, electricity meters, even toasters and fridges are gathering information on everything we do and this information can be used in ways we don’t expect, from denying credit to identifying us as employment or credit risks.

Added to this is the end of ownership, where a purchase is only a license to use a product and that right can be cut off at any time.

In the US, farmers are downloading pirated Ukrainian firmware for their tractors so they can maintain them. In many countries, including Australia, even that may be illegal.

Should a consumer find their product is remotely shut down, they may have few legal remedies as many agreement insist on compulsory, and expensive, private arbitration rather than using the courts or tribunals to settle disputes. The terms and conditions underpinning the software licenses are so restrictive that it’s almost impossible to hold any supplier to account.

Ultimately to protect the general public from these corporate and government excesses, a strong media is required to publicise official malfeasance and equalise the power imbalance with the rich and powerful.

Where will a strong media come from?

Right now it’s hard to see where that strong media will come from with today’s broken advertising and revenue models. However it was equally hard a hundred years to see how people would make money from producing radio programs yet the broadcasting industry turned out to be one of the Twentieth Century’s most profitable.

To the question of ‘is everyone now a journalist?’ the answer has to be ‘no’ – the risks and costs are too high for the ordinary person who has to worry about keeping their job in a world where timid managers, not just at Centrelink, are frightened of even the mildest criticism.

Coupled with that are the high legal barriers, from defamation to confidentiality clauses the barriers to reporting on matters are steadily being increased and the costs of defending oneself from plaintiffs who’d rather not see stories written are punitive and beyond the means of all but the richest media organisations.

Rethinking journalism

It could well be that we’re returning to an earlier period of journalism where the trade was poorly paid and regarded, it was only during the post World War II years that the occupation became something that supported middle lifestyles.

With the stakes so high in an increasingly data driven world, it’s essential we do define the role of journalists is in today’s world along with give citizens the technological and legal tools so we can hold the powerful to account in the connected and data rich 21st Century.

Digital disruption has deeply affected the media and it is redefining our rights as corporations and governments use technology to amass more power. We as citizens, voters and consumers have to exercise what influences we can to ensure our rights in a digital word.

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