Reports today that News International will move the Sunday Times online to a “paid-for” model are part of a more general shift away from a “free as in free beer” internet, as I mentioned in my article in this month’s Prospect. But do these moves mean we should worry about a move away from a “free as in free speech” internet?
It depends of course whether your definition of free speech includes people’s right to receive and exchange ideas among one another. If it does, the brief period in which newspapers and broadcasters have attempted to gain market share on the internet by offering free access and have funded distribution through advertising has been a boon for free speech. It has been a period of amazingly fast and free exchange of ideas. Facebook, Google and the wider blogosphere have emerged as the major new distribution mechanisms for news and comment and they have enabled us to flag, point, post, tag, “like” and comment freely and quickly. Yet as the newspapers teeter on the edge of collapse, we do have to acknowledge that somebody has to pay for journalism.
Newspapers have long complained that bloggers and search advertising are parasitical on their professional journalism; and that reliable factual reporting and investigation will not be supplied without both advertising and sales revenue. The government seems to be behind a new crackdown on piracy as part of its campaign to get investment flowing into upgrading the internet. This will help the Times and others if they really do want to police access to their journalists’ content. But do they really want to cut themselves off from the value of all the traffic that social media provide?
In the end, it will be the punters who decide. How many people will pay for Sunday Times online content and what will the Times’s social media strategy be? Some of the its competitors are likely to stay with a free model for as long as they can, but will they be able to fund decent journalism? And the social implications of all this will be discussed by future historians: are we witnessing a fracture of our news environment into a premium paid for service and a cheap and cheerful freesheet culture?