The Washington Post started a new blog called “The Switch” (a blog that was probably conceived in the weeks before Jeff Bezos announced the he had bought the newspaper). The blog is supposed to focus on technology and policy: Its announced editorial direction is “Where Technology and Policy Connect.”
Some of you may remember back before October when the Washington Post was one of the most revered brands in journalism. Unfortunately, recent events may foreshadow the long arm of the Gang of Four gripping the Post’s editorial policy.
The Gang of Four
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt frequently refers to the “Gang of Four“–Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google–as the companies that dominate consumer technology. (Almost sounds like a cartel, don’t it?) When you speak of these tech companies in the consumer space, it seems inevitable that these companies’ collective interests in weakening copyright are aligned. Or said more precisely, their interest in weakening other people’s copyrights.
So would it really be that surprising when Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post that he would use it as a mouthpiece for his commercial views? Particularly in a column that is to be “where technology and policy connect”? This is pretty common stuff–William Randolph Hearst, Lord Beaverbrook, Rupert Murdoch–does anyone seriously question that Bezos will push his own hustle at the Post?
It is against this backdrop that we should view the recent editorial disaster at The Switch and ask whether it provides insight into what the future may hold for the once-great paper.
Google’s Profit from Piracy
Remember–over 90% of Google’s revenues are derived from online advertising, including the kind of display advertising seen on pirate sites that profit from piracy. Google acknowledged that it cut off over 46,000 ad publishers for violating Google’s “rules” against its Adsense and Doubleclick platforms doing business with pirate sites. Google does not disclose how much money it made from these 46,000 sites, so we will guess. Even by a low estimate, Google probably made in the vicinity of $400,000,000 just from the terminated sites. If that’s the wrong number, then I’m sure Google will tell us how much they made….
Google has had an increasing problem with being caught profiting from advertising served to pirate sites. Whether it’s drugs, human trafficking, counterfeit Olympics tickets or plain old copyright infringement, Google has unquestionably been caught with its hand in the cookie jar and they have run out of excuses. Remember–Google’s senior executive team authorized the payment of $500,000,000 of the stockholders money to keep their executives (including Sheryl Sandberg who is now at Facebook) from being indicted for violations of the Controlled Substances Act by a Rhode Island grand jury. (It remains to be seen if Google is going to face wrongful death lawsuits from parents whose children died after ordering drugs like human growth hormone or oxycontin from Google Adsense partners–but they are being sued by several different groups of stockholders for malfeasance arising out of the drug case.)
So it was rather surprising to see Google dust off an old canard as a defense to pointing users to infringing materials–the supposed lack of legitimate online sources for licensed content. This came up in Google’s response to Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood’s questioning whether Google had complied with the plea bargain agreement that Google made with the U.S. Department of Justice, in Google’s most recent charm offensive on how it “fights piracy”, and–in The Switch.
Yes, the Washington Post regurgitated almost verbatim what Google has recently been claiming as a defense to demands that Google do more to stop illegal drugs being sold through its advertising and the massive numbers of links to illegal sites in its search results.
That’s So 1999
One of the common accusations against record companies in the early days of the Internet (and in the Napster litigation) was a variant of the wife beater’s “she’s so clumsy she fell into a door” or blame the victim defense. If the record companies would just license then people would not have to steal to get the music digitally. Bearing in mind that there were still record stores in those days and that this “defense” would never have worked in the physical world. Nobody really bought into this as a legal matter. However, it did get some traction with the Lessig wing of the professoriate despite the inherent fallaciousness of the argument. (That’s never stopped him before–remember “stop criminalizing our kids”?)
Given the thousands of licensed digital outlets available today, it was a bit grating to hear this old red herring spruced up and paraded around the stage. Surely no one would be ill informed enough to actually believe this bunk?
Well, they did at the Washington Post.
She Fell Into A Door
The Washington Post bought it hook, line and sinker. Now bear in mind–this wasn’t covering a breaking news story. There’s no news in The Switch’s coverage. This is a story that The Switch team evidently chose to cover, that they emphasized in their blog, that they presumably wanted to push out to readers.
The story ran under the headline “Here’s why Hollywood should blame itself for its piracy problems” which has been changed now to “Many of the most-pirated movies aren’t available for legitimate online purchase”. The once-venerable Washington Post tells us:
Why does movie piracy persist after years of efforts to stamp it out? A new website called PiracyData.org suggests a simple explanation: people pirate movies because they don’t have the option of paying for a legitimate copy online.
Every week, the file-sharing news site TorrentFreak publishes a list of the 10 most pirated movies. PiracyData.org mashes this list up with data from CanIStreamIt, a search engine that helps consumers find legitimate sources for copyrighted films.
The results are striking. In last week’s results, not a single film was available from streaming from services like Netflix or Amazon Prime. Only three of the top 10 films, The Lone Ranger, After Earth, and This is the End, were available for online rental. For example, several services offer After Earth for $4.99.
The story then rapidly turned into a regurgitation of Google’s retaliatory arguments against the massive evidence that it profits from piracy as well as many other illegal behaviors.
Piracydata.org was created by two tech policy researchers at the Mercatus Center, a libertarian think tank, and by Matt Sherman, a software engineer based in New York. The team’s leader, Jerry Brito, [and a close friend of Timothy B. Lee who leads The Switch team] says he got the idea for the site after a hearing in which major content holders criticized Google for failing to do enough to combat piracy. That criticism came despite the fact that Google has taken a number of steps to prevent illegal sharing of copyrighted works.
A year ago, Google began automatically demoting search results that are the target of numerous takedown requests by copyright holders. Yet despite that proactive approach, searches for Hollywood blockbusters frequently turn up links to pirate websites.
“The MPAA is complaining that Google leads people to infringing links,” Brito argues. “But what’s the alternative?” The movies that are available on file-sharing sites, he says, are “very rarely available for legal acquisition.”
Actually, the movies that are popular on illegal sites are often pre-release copies of the movies. They are also frequently movies that are still in the theaters–as is true of all the movies that the Washington Post lists in the story. You know the other thing that these movies all have in common?
Hundreds of millions in marketing budgets from the studios that are driving interest in these titles to sites where consumers get them for “free”–perhaps sites like the 46,000 that Google cut off from Adsense and Doubleclick where Google sold advertising and drove traffic based on search.
There are no lost sales in this scenario, by the way. All sales are monetized. They’re just not monetized by the people who made the movies. These sales are monetized by the illegal site and the ad network serving the advertising to their publisher partner. Ad networks like Google’s Adsense and Doubleclick.
Brito insists he’s not trying to excuse piracy. [Oh, of course not. What is he saying then?] But, he argues, “I don’t understand how the industry is making a big show about Google not taking voluntary measures to help with piracy.”
And there it is–that witch is so dumb she keeps falling into doors.
The Money Quote
Brito’s quote defending Google’s “voluntary measures” could easily be seen as the entire reason that the Washington Post offered up the article in the first place. If you deleted those references to Google and quotes defending Google, you wouldn’t have much of a story, would you?
So why would The Switch team be so interested in defending Google on an issue that came up at a past House IP subcommittee hearing? Isn’t that old news?
Not if the same subject is about to come up at a future IP subcommittee hearing and Google feels vulnerable. Not if Google would like to get its message out in the Washington Post courtesy of fellow Gang of Four member Jeff Bezos and his Seattle on the Potomac neighborhood rag. Not if Google wanted to be able to walk into that hearing with some clippings that supported–nay, defended–Google IN THE WASHINGTON POST. Can’t you just hear it?
Well, guys, coverage in the Post after the Bezos purchase a couple weeks ago doesn’t mean the same thing that it would have before the Post was sold.
A Scorecard for the Players
Now I have to confess that there is a little bit of inside baseball going on here. If you are a student of the Google-financed anti-copyright world, you will know that Timothy B. Lee is so tied into Google that he had to be disclosed to a court on the “Google shill list” (the Oracle case). You will also know that Jerry Brito is one of Lee’s friends, so it’s a bit hard to swallow that this all just kind of appeared because The Switch team has a nose for news. There are, of course, some other dots to connect.
When Did Noah Build the Ark?
As it turns out, the Washington Post had to print a correction about this “story”:
Correction: The original data supplied to us by PiracyData.org was inaccurate. It showed 1 movie available for rental and 4 available for purchase. In fact, at least 3 were available for rental and 6 were available for purchase. “Pacific Rim” is also now available for digital rental, though it’s not clear if that was true on Monday. We regret the errors. We also added some additional comments from the MPAA’s Kate Bedingfield to the end of the article.
This correction is remarkable for what it does not say. There are these people called fact checkers. Maybe The Switch team has heard of them. All of the “original data supplied” by PiracyData.org was knowable information. It could have been confirmed from sources. In fact–the same sources they heard from after the story ran. The ones they quoted in the “correction”. Because…it sure seems like nobody fact checked that story. And you do that before you run the story. Before. That’s why they call it fact checking.
When did Noah build the Ark?
Before the rain.
You’ve probably seen or read All the President’s Men, the iconic story of how the Washington Post broke the Watergate news that inspired a generation of journalists. Remember Ben Bradlee demanding that Woodward and Bernstein get more sources, check their facts, etc.? How do you think Mr. Bradlee would react to the crew at The Switch failing to fact check a manufactured story?
But I doubt that happened to the crew of The Switch.
Oh, did I say “manufactured”? Well hush my mouth.
Columbia Journalism Review Steps In
In Mr. Bradlee’s absence, enter the Columbia Journalism Review (A Piracy Defense Walks the Plank by Ryan Chittum). Attention crew of the eponymous Switch: This is the kind of review you do not want to get. You need to answer for your…well let’s just say it…incompetence, and “You’re old!” is not an answer when you want to play in the bigs.
The CJR tells us:
There are many problems with Timothy B. Lee’s Washington Post blog post on Hollywood’s supposed culpability for the theft of its own movies, beginning with the morally unserious jujitsu deployed in arguing that Hollywood is culpable for the theft of its own movies.
The Mercatus- and Cato-connected editor of the Washington Post tech blog that aims “to be indispensable to telecom lobbyists and IT professionals alike, while also being compelling and provocative to the average iPhone-toting commuter” also had a major correction that undermines the entire premise of the piece and reveals its one-sided reporting….
Lee based his argument on bad data from PiracyData.org, which was co-founded by a couple of researchers at the Koch [yes, that Koch]-funded anti-government think tank the Mercatus Center to document whether “people turn to piracy when the movies they want to watch are not available legally.”
Left unmentioned: That Lee himself contributed a chapter to a Mercatus book with the researchers (at least one of whom is his friend) called “Copyright Unbalanced: From Incentive to Excess.” That would have been worth disclosing in the post. Readers would have had more reason to be skeptical….
So what about those additional comments from the MPAA Lee refers to in his correction? This is how his rewritten post now ends (emphasis mine):
But Bedingfield counters that films get heavily pirated even when they’re made available in online formats. “The Walking Dead was pirated 500,000 times within 16 hours despite the fact that it is available to stream for free for the next 27 days on AMC’s website and distributed in 125 countries around the world the day after it aired,” she says. “Our industry is working hard to bring content to audiences when they want it, where they want it, but content theft is a complex problem that requires comprehensive, voluntary solutions from all stakeholders involved.”
Finally, Bedingfield points out that the Mercatus Center counts Google among its funders.
My thoughts exactly. Boom.
Have A Care With My Name, You Will Wear It Out
I really have no idea how The Switch crew feels about all this. I would think they’d feel some kind of embarrassment were they exposed for crass shills, but you just never know these days. Here’s a little unsolicited advice for them.
Remember–it’s not your brand. The Washington Post brand belongs to the generations of actual reporters who came before you. Along with the great things, they also did all those grubby little tasks, you know, like fact checking. Because in the end, all that a journalist really has to look back on is their credibility, those inky little wretches.
And yes, your predecessors are “old.” Or said another way, they had the staying power of achievement. They stand for something that matters, like, oh say the First Amendment.
And listen up because this is important–it’s an honor to work where you work. It’s an honor to be part of the legend of those reporters who did both trivial and earth shattering things. Act like you know that.
Maybe…you’ll get to be one of them.
PS and be really, really glad that Ben Bradlee doesn’t work there anymore.