Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Cyberactivism and the Webcasters' Day of Silence...

If you're a regular listener to internet radio services like Pandora and Live365, then yesterday you were in for a shock. In protest of a Copyright Royalty Board decision which seeks to regulate internet radio stations out of existence, webcasters collectively held a "day of silence" by taking down their services and directing would-be listeners to instead. But will such a tactic work?

According to the Copyright Royalty Board decision, internet radio stations would be charged differently than terrestrial or satellite radio stations - requiring them to pay royalties for each song played, rather than the flat rate standard which still applies to the other radio forms. What this means is that internet radio stations' royalty payments would rise 300%, in addition to substantial minimum monthly payments on top of that, driving most stations out of business and significantly chilling new ones from ever coming into existence. The protesters are not calling for the end of royalties; just to be treated on equal par with terrestrial and satellite stations. Also, the protesters are trying to raise support for a new bill that has been introduced in Congress, the Internet Radio Equality Act, which would eliminate the minimum fee per channel and charge webcasters the same 7.5%-of-revenue rate enjoyed by satellite radio.

All of this has been building for weeks and written about before. So will the "day of silence" have any substantial effect?

It depends on the intended goal. Surely, the "day of silence" has garnered additional public awareness to the problem, as well as some New Media coverage, though probably in minuscule amounts by most relative measurable standards. So if the goal of the protest was to shine the spotlight on the issue, it has succeeded, albeit in a limited manner. However, if the goal was more ambitious - to unequivocally persuade members of Congress to reject the Copyright Royalty Board's decision and support the Internet Radio Equality Act - then the protest was more symbolic than effective in any practical sense.

What lessons, then, can be wrought from this case study in cyberactivism? First, online protests such as the "day of silence" and "Turn the Web Black", in which websites voluntarily shut down in order to raise attention to their cause, are inherently limited in their capacity to enable policy change. This is because most cases of cyberactivism involve small independently-run websites who are in the predicament they're in primarily because they have audiences too small to raise the ire of the mainstream mass public. Therefore, any such "shut ourselves down" type of protest will mostly just incite its own small base of users.

Second, the threat of hacktivism would scare the record labels and other targets of protest far more than that of cyberactivism. To put it another way, who do you think the record labels in this case fear more: a group of politically-minded netizens who want to raise grassroots support for a new Congressional bill (while the labels continue their multi-million dollar lobbying efforts), or the possibility that some hacker will release an open-source version of Pandora which would then proliferate around the internet and release the genie from the bottle forever?

The truth is that the webcasters' "day of silence" was meant to show people what their lives would be like without internet radio, except that this strategy completely backfired because most people's lives wouldn't be affected at all. Using cyberactivist tactics to rouse the mass public only works if the mass public will feel the effects of the protest action in a real way. The internet provides a forum for social protest in unprecedented ways, enabling all the "little guys" to affect meaningful change against powerful entrenched interests. The problem with the "day of silence" is that it fails to take advantage of the web's most striking protest principle - the primacy of technology over politics. Cyberactivism might make a terrific supplement to traditional social and political activism, but in the end, it is the hackers - pursuing legal but disruptive objectives - who hold the protest power in internet politics.


At 2:08 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

you made lot of valid points about the general apathy of mainstream listeners. I linked to it from my blog, gotta love the digg feautre. Sorry for not mentioning your name on my blog. I go correct that rightaway.


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