News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch has a Twitter account. A for-real, honest-to-goodness Twitter feed. He composes the tweets and hits the "send" button. It is a direct link to the mind of one of the wealthiest, most powerful, and controversial men in the world. Which is why it's so surprising and disappointing that, to date, it's been rather banal.
As the New York Times described it, Murdoch impulsively decided to join the microblogging service while tooling around the Caribbean on his yacht over the holidays. Since then it's been a steady stream of pro-vacation missives ("Vacations great time for thinking. St Barth's too many people. Thoughts best kept private around here. Like London!"); promotions of News Corp. ventures ("I LOVE the film 'we bought a zoo', a great family movie. Very proud of fox team who made this great film."); and cryptic warnings ("Jack. Tokyo sounds great but be careful of that full moon").
But this is Murdoch's big debut on the internet! And we're privileged enough to see him stumble his way through the basics of Internet 101. Lesson 1: the internet is a conspiratorial and sexual place: "Why is every tweet thought to conspiratorial or sexual. I was talking blackjack. Give me a break." Lesson 2: the heartbreak of auto-correct: "Yes, thanks, of course I meant POTUS. Somehow iPad changed my spelling. I should have checked. Sorry."
Murdoch is obviously not of the internet generation (he'll be 81 in March), so tweets like these aren't surprising. And while his ignorance of internet basics is, in these instances, charming and somewhat comic, it starts to have more sinister implications when you consider Murdoch's influence over tech policy.
News Corp. is one of the many large media conglomerates that support the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) and its beleaguered cousin, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The controversial pieces of anti-digital piracy legislation -- once considered all-but-certain to become law -- ran headlong into a buzz saw of internet activism and are now facing an uncertain future. Big-name tech companies (Google, Yahoo!, Facebook) opposed the bills out of concern over censorship and their potentially stifling effect on innovation, and popular online communities (Reddit, Wikipedia) organized successful boycotts of pro-SOPA companies and are scheduled to go dark for most of tomorrow as an act of protest.
As one would expect, Murdoch, as the head of News Corp., enthusiastically supports SOPA and PIPA, and he has taken to Twitter to boost the bills and take swipes at the opposition. The problem is that he doesn't seem to have any idea what he's talking about, and actually ended up making an anti-SOPA argument by accident.
On January 14, the White House issued an official statement in response to two anti-SOPA online petitions, indicating that it will not support SOPA and PIPA: "Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small." Murdoch expressed his displeasure with the White House via Twitter: "So Obama has thrown in his lot withSilicon [sic] Valley paymasters who threaten all software creators with piracy, plain thievery." Murdoch then served up a harangue aimed at chief SOPA opponent Google, accusing the company of "piracy":
Where to begin... First off, for Murdoch to slam Google as the world's "piracy leader" doesn't exactly reflect well on him, given News Corp.'s relationship with Google. Murdoch's flagship property, Fox News, partnered with Google to host a Republican presidential primary debate last September. News Corp. announced just last week that their tablet-only newspaper, The Daily, will soon be available on devices that run Google's Android operating system. If Google is indeed the Blackbeard of the digital age, then why are Murdoch's properties so eagerly partnering up with it?
Second, this isn't the first time Murdoch's personal enmity towards Google has caused problems for News Corp. A 2010 New York magazine profile of Murdoch noted that he's long been itching to take on Google and quoted a "senior media executive" describing Murdoch as "pretty tightly wound up over Google... He doesn't trust them at all." In 2009, Murdoch threatened to pull all News Corp. websites from Google's search indices to prevent Google from "stealing" News Corp. content. There were threats of lawsuits, talks of exclusive content deals with Microsoft, and much overheated rhetoric, but here we are in 2012 and News Corp. websites are still popping up in Google searches.
More to the point, Murdoch doesn't appear to have the firmest grasp on what Google actually does. Google does sell advertising, but they most certainly do not offer pirated content. I don't doubt that a Google search for "mission impossible" will turn up some links to websites purporting to offer free downloads of the movies that make-up that franchise. But a link showing up in a Google search can hardly be considered "piracy" on Google's part. A spokesperson for Google dismissed Murdoch's accusatory tweets as "nonsense."
What Murdoch wants is for Google to be liable for content persons not associated with Google put online, simply because their sites happen to show up in Google search results. He made this clear (despite some grammatical hitches) when he tweeted on January 15: "Sure misunderstand many things, but not plain stealing. Incidentally google blocks many other undesirable things."
The irony here is that in arguing this position, Murdoch has actually articulated the criticisms of SOPA and PIPA by the bills' opponents. Techdirt ran down the bill of particulars against SOPA not long after the bill was first introduced late last year, noting that "the definitions are ridiculously broad. Under SOPA, you can be found 'dedicated to the theft of US property' if the core functionality of your site 'enables or facilitates' infringement. The core functionality of nearly every internet website that involves user generated content enables and facilitates infringement. The entire internet itself enables or facilitates infringement."
What the bill would require, critics argue, is for websites that rely on user-generated content (such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, etc.) to zealously police all the content posted to their sites to ensure it doesn't infringe on copyrights or enables access to content that violates copyright. Such an undertaking, Techdirt argues, "is effectively impossible for a user generated content site" and represents a monstrously expensive legal hurdle for an internet start-up to contend with.
And that's exactly what Murdoch is arguing Google should be made to do. Google already polices YouTube to remove copyrighted material and stay in compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Murdoch wants Google to ensure that non-Google websites that provide access to pirated material not even show up in their search results, lest they be branded with the "pirate" label.
Murdoch's position on Google and piracy, writes Jeff Jarvis, is born of both ignorance and stubbornness: "Murdoch is against more than just piracy. He is against the fundamental architecture of the web and the net. He cannot see past old models of owning content and selling it and cannot see new ways to make money through using content to generate signals about people and built relationships with them to target higher-value, relevant content, services, and advertising." This is a problem not just because Murdoch carries considerable weight in the media world, but also because he is not alone; the people shaping our internet policy actually admit to having no idea what they're talking about.
The Washington Post's Alexandra Petri observed with no small amount of exasperation during the House Judiciary Committee's SOPA markup that the people who most adamantly support drastically changing the internet lack understanding of the internet's most basic concepts:
If I had a dime for every time someone in the hearing markup used the phrase "I'm not a nerd" or "I'm no tech expert, but they tell me . . .," I'd have a large number of dimes and still feel intensely worried about the future of the uncensored Internet. If this were surgery, the patient would have run out screaming a long time ago. But this is like a group of well-intentioned amateurs getting together to perform heart surgery on a patient incapable of moving. "We hear from the motion picture industry that heart surgery is what's required," they say cheerily. "We're not going to cut the good valves, just the bad -- neurons, or whatever you call those durn thingies."
This is terrifying to watch. It would be amusing -- there's nothing like people who did not grow up with the Internet attempting to ask questions about technology very slowly and stumbling over words like "server" and "service" when you want an easy laugh. Except that this time, the joke's on us.
Supporting them are heavyweight media presences like Murdoch and News Corp., who spend a lot of money lobbying and have a specific vision for the internet that is based largely on fiction. And it's unnerving to think that one of the most powerful voices pushing for these drastic technological changes hasn't quite yet figured out how Google works.