[...] these companies then undertake this very close surveillance, which then becomes available to the highest bidder for commercial purposes.
[...] alongside this centralization of control there is also the fact that journalism itself is dying. The internet hasn’t caused its death, but it has accelerated it, and eliminated any hope for a successful commercial news media system that can serve the information needs of the entire population.
The roots of its decline stretch back decades. For the first hundred or so years in American history, newspapers were heavily subsidized by the federal government, in order to encourage a rich array of news media. No one at that time thought the profit motive operating in the “free” market alone would be sufficient to provide the caliber of news media the constitution required. This was done primarily through free or nominal distribution of newspapers by the post office — almost all newspapers were distributed by post in the early republic — and also by printing contracts handed out with the explicit intent to help support different newspapers, by branches of government. In combination, the annual government subsidy of journalism as a percentage of GDP in the 1840s would be worth around $35 billion in today’s economy.
By the late nineteenth century, the commercial system consolidated whereby advertising provided the lion’s share of the revenues, and the state subsidies declined in importance and, in many cases, disappeared. Publishing newspapers, building journalism empires, began to generate massive fortunes while continuing to provide owners with immense political power. This is the context in which professional journalism — purportedly nonpartisan, opinion-free, politically neutral and fact-obsessed — was spawned in the first few decades of the twentieth century.
The basic problem is that the giant internet companies — especially Facebook and Google — are taking away the advertising money that would’ve traditionally gone to some newspaper or journalism-producing entity. But Facebook and Google aren’t using this money to invest in more journalists or news reporting.
This looked like the transition, say, in the year 2000, that we would slowly be seeing. It wasn’t clear we would lose commercial journalism. But what happened with the surveillance model is that no one buys ads on a website. You don’t go to the New York Times and say, “Hey, I want to buy an ad,” and hope and pray my target audience comes and looks at your website and sees my ad. Instead, you go to Google or Facebook or aol , and you say, “Hey, I want to reach every American male in this income group between the age of 30 and 34 who might be interested in buying a new car in the next three months,” and aol will locate every one of those men, wherever they are online, and your ad will appear on whatever website they go to, usually straight away. They will find them.
That means the content producers, in this case the news media, don’t get a cut anymore. Those advertising dollars used to subsidize most of their work. Now, if they do get an ad on your site, they get much less for it, and they only get it for those users who are in the target audience of the person placing the ad, not everyone who goes to their site. If you and I were to go to the same site, we’d get different ads, probably, working for different products. The amount of money that the actual website gets is infinitesimal compared to what it would be if they got the whole amount, like in the good old days.
The commercial model’s gone, which is why journalism’s dying, why there are very few working journalists left. No rational capitalist is investing in journalism because of its profit potential. To the extent they invest, it tends usually be some hedge-fund douchebags buying dying media and stripping them for parts, or some billionaire like Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post or Sheldon Adelson buying the Las Vegas Review-Journal, always at fire-sale prices. The point of the exercise in these instances is to use the newspaper to shape the broader political narrative to the owner’s liking, with very few other voices in opposition. That is hardly a promising development for an open society.
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What that means is that what started out as a radically decentralized and almost impossible to monitor form of communication, within a few short years, became incredibly centralized, where all the information was passing through just a very small number of hands.
What does this do to the original two ambitions of the scientific community behind the internet, anonymity and better dissemination of information?