Google and the evil that lobbyists do?

I’m looking forward to reading Robert Levine’s Free Ride: How the Internet Is Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back, although I’ll probably wait until our library here at ANU orders it. At $28.95 for a digital download (only $5 less than the hardcover), no one will be able to accuse Levine or his publisher of looking for a free ride. They have, however, priced themselves out of my market (too-high prices, ironically, being one of the main causes of unauthorized downloads, according to the definitive survey on the subject).

In particular, I hope he goes into a lot of detail on Google’s attempts to influence public policy, as Chris Castle’s favourable review of Levine’s book seems to suggest:

One of the truly significant themes in the book is how Levine has laid out in one place all the different ways that Google influences public policy around the world. This is done through his discussion of the execuprofs, groups like the EFF and Google’s massive contributions to Creative Commons, as well as a history of the YouTube case. I mean the Viacom case against Google–sorry. (Saying “the YouTube case” alone is like saying “my brother is in the Army, maybe you know him.”)

As someone whose whole dissertation essentially came down to studying what groups influence copyright policy in North America and how they do it, this really caught my eye. I’d certainly agree that Google is lobbying for their point of view, but I find it hard to get that worked up about it, especially once we put Google’s actions in perspective.

First off, all interest groups lobby for their preferred policies. The most direct way to lobby for your policies in Washington is to hire lobbyists to provide Congresspeople with money and research that supports your cause. On Capitol Hill, the content industries are widely acknowledged as the reigning champs at influencing policy. They’ve been very successful at wielding arguments (and money) to support their position. As for Google, they’re still new at this game (the company isn’t even 10 years old), but learning fast. In the second quarter of 2011, Google spent US$2.06 million on lobbyists. That’s a lot, but the Recording Industry of America, in the first quarter of 2011, spent pretty much the same: US$2.1 million.

Second, lobbying involves battling to frame the debate, and everybody does it. Against academics like Lawrence Lessig and lobby groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, you have well-established groups like the Motion Picture Association of America. Google’s relationship with academics (imagine!) like Lessig and agitators (which I say with respect; agitators drive debates) like the EFF is dictated largely by their position as upstarts. They’re trying to promote a view different from accepted Washington orthodoxy. Right now, the dominant view of copyright on Capitol Hill is very favourable to the cultural industries; the EFF/Lessig/Google Axis of Infringement faces an uphill battle. For example, the U.S. position in talks like the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership is very pro-stronger copyright and cultural industries.

So, sure, Google is flexing its economic muscles, but it’s not like they’re going up against underfunded ingenues. And it’s certainly not like they’re running the show.

When I see Google’s attempts to influence the copyright debate in Washington and elsewhere, I see an upstart group attempting to break past several entrenched lobbies to promote its point of view. When I look at copyright policymaking, I see a process that continues to be dominated by cultural industries that have been “fight[ing] back” against technological change since the Clinton White House issued its National Information Infrastructure White Paper on Intellectual Property in 1995. In short, I see politics as usual.

And copyright is nothing if not political.

A few other thoughts:

  1. I’ll be very curious to see how Levine recommends that the culture business (by which he seems to mean the companies that publish and distribute books, music, etc., and not the creators themselves) “fight back.” I think pretty much everyone would agree that what they’ve been doing for the past 15 or so years hasn’t been very successful in terms of staving off economic contraction.
  2. I also hope his book includes a discussion about how copyright (and all forms of cultural regulation) and technology favours certain types of creation over others (see, Beastie Boys, Paul’s Boutique). In other words, that different types of cultural products get produced under different regimes is a fact of life.
  3. In his Guardian column touting his book, Levine doesn’t seem to differentiate between the cultural industries and actual creators. The cultural industries are a means to the end of helping creators publish and distribute their works, and while historically economies have scale have made them necessary for creators to get their stuff out there, the two sides often have conflicting interests. Similarly, the objective of copyright historically has been to promote the creation and dissemination of creative works, not to support a particular industrial model.
  4. Does anybody know why Levine seems to have changed the title of his book from Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back? Calling someone a parasite (especially since many of these “parasites” are the culture industries’ customers) is a pretty sure way to preempt a civil conversation.
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