Not This Again: IEEE Plays Up Bogus 'Digital Sharecropping' Argument Again

from the make-it-stop dept

Nearly six years ago, we wrote about the ridiculousness of Nick Carr’s suggestion that Web 2.0 was all about “digital sharecropping”, in which online service providers are somehow “exploiting” users to take the fruits of their labors. I would hope that, with six years of hindsight, people would still remember what a completely nonsensical argument this is — based as it is on the economically clueless suggestion that the only possible benefit someone could get from using an online service is money. Of course that’s not true. The reason that so many people use something like YouTube isn’t because they’re being exploited, but because it enables something wonderful and powerful for free. Prior to YouTube, if you wanted to put up a video, you had to install complex or expensive server software, pay a ton for bandwidth… oh yeah, and hope that whoever wanted to watch the video had the proper software to view it. YouTube took all of that away, and made it all free (and even added easy ways to monetize it). If that’s exploitation, sign me up to be exploited. Similarly, look at a platform like Twitter, which has enabled amazingly powerful real time communications that has connected me with people worldwide in ways never before possible. That’s not exploitation. It’s called providing something of value.

So it’s a shame to see the IEEE basically rehash Carr’s silly argument as if it were still relevant, setting up a strawman about how “Web 2.0” (really, is anyone still using that term?) was all about empowerment, but the reality is that (gasp) there are companies involved. And some of them… (wait for it…) make money!

But the road to Utopia all too often ends up detouring through the business district, and Web 2.0 has been no exception. By offering the means of production free to their users, other leviathan sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, have generated enormous amounts of content at almost no expense. Even better, this content is a gold mine for targeted advertising.

Over in Utopia, the “workers” who generated all those articles, photos, tweets, and videos would get a cut of the profits they helped to generate. In the business district, however, users retain their amateur status, while the companies they labor for rake in billions. Worse, contributors don’t even own the content they create. The smallest of the small print in the terms of use, which you must agree to in order to get an account, states that the company can use your content as it sees fit.

Beyond the fact that this is a common misreading of the terms of service of most of the sites he’s talking about (which merely request a license to make sure that their hosting of the content you put up is legit), author Paul McFedries completely ignores the tremendous value that people get for using those platforms… almost all of which is given out for free. While economic value is often measured in dollar terms, that doesn’t mean that people don’t get value if actual dollars aren’t exchanged. The people using these platforms aren’t being exploited — they use them because they really, really value them.

Anthony De Rosa, a product manager at Reuters, calls this digital feudalism and laments that we “are being played for suckers to feed the beast, to create content that ends up creating value for others.”

And this is equally misguided. All sorts of things people do create value for others. Almost no economic activity is entirely contained so that only the person doing the initial activity retains 100% of the benefits. Concepts like externalities and spillovers exist in economics for a very good reason — and part of the problem is people who don’t understand that creating excess value that benefits others is actually a core reason we have economic growth in the first place. Creating value for others is of tremendous economic value. The problem is that people ignore the fact that those doing the creating are getting back more than enough value directly or they wouldn’t be doing the activity in the first place.

It’s a shame that we’re still having these discussions today, after we’ve had many more years of experience with all of these valuable services to recognize that it’s not exploitation to get a tremendously useful service for free, while also increasing value for others. It’s actually how we innovate and grow the economy itself.

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Comments on “Not This Again: IEEE Plays Up Bogus 'Digital Sharecropping' Argument Again”

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Tim K (profile) says:

If you replace publisher with IEEE the AC reply to my comment on the Google scanning article seems to apply here as well.

The thing is that publishers don’t care if something is good for them – they care if it’s good for someone else. If someone else makes money, then that someone should have to pay the publishers.

I wish I were making this up, but that’s essentially what a publisher told me at a copyright hearing – they didn’t care if a technological innovation made them more money – if the company responsible for that innovation is making money, they should have to pay the publishers whatever the publishers want.

Christopher Best (profile) says:

Oh IEEE...

My company gave me a free membership to the IEEE. I ended up cancelling it after the first year, because:

1) They are die-hard supporters of software patents.
2) The amount of snail mail spam I got every month from them was amazing. Over half of my junk mail was because I was an IEEE member and they wanted to sell me car insurance or something.

So seeing an IEEE article about how unfair it is for someone to make money off of the labor of others, and then know they support patent trolling and filling my mailbox with junk mail… Yeah, the facepalm quotient made me finally register for a TechDirt account to comment on it.

fogbugzd (profile) says:

Re: Oh IEEE...

I think most professional organizations do the same thing. In fact, I think think that there may be a statistical relationship that says the higher the dues, the more likely they are to sell and abuse your membership information. I one had a minor typo in my address on an insanely expensive professional membership. I got massive amounts of junk mail with the organization’s typo for as long as I was a member. One year I started getting typo’d mail for strip clubs. My wife inquired about my suddenly colorful mail. I finally realized that they were having the national conference in Vegas, and that is where the strip clubs were located. That was one contributing factor to me cancelling my membership.

Lord Binky says:

By Cthulu’s Nose Tentacles! I did not know that I was a mere minion of Google when I used them to further my evil plots. What a maddeningly brilliant plan they have come up with. I cannot even fathom how making use of a service in which I save time, money, effort condemns me into a serf of this mighty digital feudal system. You are truly my digital knights in slightly tarnished armor dear sirs!

Anonymous Coward says:

“Beyond the fact that this is a common misreading of the terms of service of most of the sites he’s talking about (which merely request a license to make sure that their hosting of the content you put up is legit)…”

For the sake of clarity, the Terms of Use associated with sites like YouTube almost universally contain two provisions relating the “rights”.

In the case of YouTube’s Terms of Use:

YouTube requires a “guarantee” that materials you may upload do not contain third-party content for which a license is needed. To give “teeth” to this “guarantee”, you are required to indemnify and hold YouTube harmless if it turns out that a necessary third-party license has not been secured (IOW, “If we get sued it is your complete responsibility to make this problem go away, and if we incur any costs because of what you have done you will pay us the full amount of such costs.”).

YouTube also requires that you must and do grant it a royalty free, worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable, sublicenseable, etc. right to use the content you upload in any manner it sees fit to do. While the license you grant does have a termination provision, it is relatively narrow and continues for a “commercially reasonable” period of time after you remove or delete a “video”, and even then it is accorded the right to retain on its servers a copy of the “video” with certain restrictions on its later use, if any, by YouTube. I place quotation marks around “video” because the license you grant is to “content”, and “content” is more extensive than just videos.

The above is, of course, just a summary. The actual clauses themselves drone on incessantly in legalese.

Anonymous Coward says:

The equivalent of passing the ndaa bill to go after jay walkers

In this case, both are extreme overeactions, to things governments should have no right passing without majority approval of its citizens.

Times change, and i completly agree that over the course of history we have to adapt to situations that arise that was never a problem in the past, perhaps because they never existed, but ONLY, if they truly benifit ALL citizens, and not the few.
That last bit is not a soundbite, its a foundation that i personally think should be made law, but alas, that would tie to many crony asses, therefore, not gonna happen, not with our current leaders

Companies profit, by identifying a need in the market, and providing a superior product/service to that need, not being able to maximize profit is not an excuse to do whatever you want without oversight, if you dont go beyond your means, and strive to run your business as efficiently as you can, then a freemarket will reward that, dont willfuly overspend beyond your normal capacity, and then resort to amoral tactics to regain what youve lost, whether that be money, power or influence

Thats just a my basic opinion

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