If you listen carefully, you can hear a lot of folks outside the tech industry—and a few inside, too—asking an important question. Theyre asking it in courtrooms, in newspapers and before federal agencies and Congress, as one important facet of living in a networked society becomes clearer.
“Whos in charge?” they demand. “In this new networked world, who runs the show?” The networked, of course, can only smile knowingly. But that doesnt mean that the answer is an easy one for anyone to live with. Thats why tech-related questions are becoming political and legal debates.
MGM v. Grokster, heard Tuesday by the Supreme Court, asks this pesky question for the record business. If listeners can swap music with the press of a button, whos going to make sure that industry runs with the smoothness (and immense profitability) that its demonstrated since its creative geniuses began pressing vinyl?
The suit is a critical juncture in the long war between the recording industry and the new technology that allows its customers (and, its worth adding, the artists) to share music easily, simply and cheaply. Regardless of how the court rules, these issues are heading to Congress, where questions of authority—whos in charge?—will be debated anew.
But questons are being asked not just in Washington, D.C. For months, salaried journalists have been examining the work that “bloggers” do. Most recently, Slates media critic Jack Shafer took Los Angeles Times critic David Shaw to task for his Sunday column on bloggers and legal protections.
Shaw derided bloggers, saying all the usual things: Theyre inaccurate, theyre not edited, theyre careless, theyre not like him and they shouldnt enjoy the protections of the law that he does.
Hes asking the same question that the Grokster case does: Whos in charge? Whos going to make sure that reporters, working by themselves on the Web, dont upset the careful code of ethics and practices that “professionals” have crafted at newspapers and traditional publishing outfits?
Shaws comments came as part of some observations about the Apple Computer case. The company is asking a California court to rule on the legal standing of a group of bloggers (one of whom, by way of disclosure, is represented by my attorney). Apples asking the same question Shaw is: Whos in charge? Which of those thousands of voices out there online do we have to take seriously? Are they all journalists?
These questions arent just being asked in the commercial arena, however. Theyre being asked in political circles, too. The Federal Election Commissions recent comments on bloggers and online advertising and campaign advocacy go to the heart of the conversation taking place between Big Media and political bloggers: Whos in charge? Whos going to make sure that freedom of speech isnt misused by folks who are willing to sell their endorsements of candidates or causes?
In each and every one of these cases, the answer is pretty much the same: The reader. The consumer. The voter. The music-lover. The computer nerd. Or, more likely, some combination of all of these joined by a network that allows them to communicate instantly, forge alliances and work together.
For tech types, particularly those in Silicon Valley, this isnt new. For the rest of the world, its not an easy adjustment. So a lot of this suing and arguing and filing, lobbying and demonstrating is a fight over authority, an attempt to keep things the way they were: ordered, neat and controlled.
Thats not to say that all of these conversations about responsibility—because thats what being in charge means when you take it seriously—are without merit. The FEC should be taking a good hard look at online fundraising and the relationship that many bloggers have with campaigns. Thats a blurred line that needs to be more sharply drawn.
Another blurred line—the one between stealing and sharing of anything audio, video, written or spoken—needs to be more clearly defined, too. As for the line between bloggers and Big Media? Thats not as deep a moat as David Shaw wants to think. Blogging—like file-sharing and online fundraising—is a tool; its what you do with it that matters.
This new world of instant and instantly available choice isnt easy—remember when there was only one phone company?—but its pretty exciting. Its new. Its different. And we all get to be in charge.