Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Paywalls and the EU Article 11 concept: another coming trap for American independent journalists?

I wanted to make a note about paywall creep, as more mainstream periodicals install them for digital access.  Likewise, most local newspapers now require them.  Paywalls, for professional media publications (as opposed to indie) have turned out well.

And I had proposed the idea of consolidated paywalls here on Oct. 24.

Most publications seem to allow a few free articles (sometimes per month) before blocking access with a paywall.  In the past, you could look at the article on another browser or another laptop or smartphone in the home. Other vloggers say you can open another browser session in incognito mode. 

Let me say at first, I do have digital subscriptions to the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. I ditched home delivery because of the security problems but I do often buy copies at Starbucks.  I also have physical and digital for Economist, Time, Foreign Affairs, and Scientific American.

If Facebook doesn’t expand an article with a tiny url, you can resolve it, look at the title, search for it in Google, and then open it, often.

But these tricks (whether legal or not), may not work a lot longer. Now, they seem to be picking up that the same IP address is being used and will block it.

This raises another question, that seems to be an offshoot of the proposed EU link tax (Article 11).   It’s also related for the recent tendency for some platforms (mostly Twitter and Patreon so far, but I suspect it will spread) to ban user accounts based on “off platform manifest observable behavior”.  It sounds credible that if you gave a link to a site behind a paywall, the rights holder could check to see if you have a valid subscription and could complain to the platform about copyright infringement (if the platform conforms to Jack Conte’s theories). 

This may sound silly and self-defeating, and it’s probably a greater risk in Europe (remember that in Spain, out of a hyper protectionist attitude, small publishers weren’t allowed to opt out of charging for links).  Still, we've seen copyright trolls in the US in the past (like Righthaven) and the idea could come back with respect to this setup. 

I can imagine other problems too.  If you had bought a paper copy, then you had the legal right to view the content.  I often buy one copy of a local newspaper in a convenience store when on the road to see what is going on, and sometimes will use a link.  It’s up to the reader of my blog, in my theory, to get a subscription to view the content once getting the link (although it’s likely in practice to fall within a monthly max).  Paywall consolidations would help solve this problem.  I recall that back in the 1970s, as a young working adult alone in apartments, I would get visits from people selling consolidated magazine subscriptions (The film “American Honey”, media commentaries, Oct. 12, 2016).  This idea used to exist;  it needs to come back in the digital world.   

I’ll add that I do buy periodicals in supermarkets, but it’s not convenient to get to bookstores as often as I would like to look at all of them.  (That’s another issue, my publisher wants to see me engage local independent bookstores, and that is very time consuming and takes away time from developing content). When I worked on my “DADT 1” book in the mid 90s in a northern VA apartment, a lot of space got taken by the periodical copies I had bought for research. 

It’s interesting that the newspapers who install paywalls seem to have an attitude that they can monopolize many readers’ viewing habits, which may seem necessary to their business models. Some Internet users are then driven to fake news (which is free, and often from Russia) in their political echo chambers.  Others may go to Youtube or to amateur blogs and sites (like mine) and find the same news.

This brings us back to Tim Pool’s disturbing point that legacy publishers believe that independent journalists are seriously eroding their businesses with much lower overhead, whereas legacy publications have to worry about unions, guilds or the like so would like to see more protectionism from independents.  This is what seems to be going on in Europe with the Article 11.  Likewise, the battle over Internet movie and music piracy (SOPA in 2011-2012) really wasn’t about piracy per se (how many of us really want to watch low quality pirated DVD’s – although people do so in poor countries); it was really about low-cost or no-cost competition.  Mark Cuban even said that to me in an email (in response to Blogmaverick) about ten years ago.

Fragmenting the user experience by trying to monopolize attention and limit competition could harm user awareness of critical, often non-partisan, issues.  For example, the national security threat from solar storms or possible enemy electromagnetic pulse does not get much attention from mainstream media because most of the literature on these problems is behind expensive paywalls.  I see this as a problem of seriousness comparable to bots and fake news.  Furthermore, many engineering or scientific subjects have critical information in academic or professional journals behind expensive paywalls, which brings up the "open access" issue presented before. 

In time, automated procedures might be able to detect infringing content (videos, images, Mpg’s and pdf’s at least) stored in the Cloud, as well as other illegalities (child pornography, by digital watermark with NCMEC). This could further complicate this scenario.
Readers should also note that there are more questions now about embeds and copyright infringement, after a decision in New York State (see Feb. 17, 2018).

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