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Obama's "Naughty" and "Nice" Takes On The Internet

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Leave it to garrulous Vice President Joe Biden to be both naughty and nice when it comes to the Internet - all in the space of a week. Then again, he's not alone. At the end of the year, there were plenty of naughty and even some nice.

On Dec. 15, he hosted a meeting for the crème de la crème of Big Media, which by all accounts, like this one and this one brought top government officials together to focus on combating the scourge of "piracy."

All the hottest industry moguls were there. Among those on the list: Philippe Dauman, the chairman of Viacom, Michael Lynton, the chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, Barry Meyer, the chairman of Warner Brothers Entertainment, Jeff Zucker, the CEO of NBCUniversal (soon to be a unit of Comcast), Edgar Bronfman, CEO of the Warner Music Group, an assortment of Washington lobbyists including Dan Glickman, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America and Mitch Bainwol, chairman of the Recording Industry Association of America. They heard from the VP himself, Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and others.

No one likes "piracy," but this over-the-top meeting put so much of a focus on the issue, and pandered so much to the assembled multitudes that it lacked any credibility whatsoever. Despite claims that this was one of a potential series of meetings, a balanced discussion of the issue would have been nice to start. Biden has a long history with Big Media from his days on the Senate Judiciary Committee. That's not to disparage him. It's a fact, based on his comments and support then and now for Draconian measures, which may or may not be needed. Despite evidence to the contrary, in terms of boffo box office for movies and decreasing use of those dreaded peer-to-peer networks, the industry is pushing ahead with its policies of more and more enforcement for a problem the industry has been working on for decades. The music business, in particular, has been attempting to cope with "piracy" ever since it ditched vinyl 30 years ago. Each time they waged war against a technology, they lost, even as cyclical trends in music continued.

Here is how entertainment mogul David Geffen described the record business: "The problem... is not counterfeiting, which is illegal, or home taping, which is a fact of life and going on for years. What's wrong with the business is incompetence, a lack of commitment and insensitivity." Oh yes, he said that in 1980, as quoted in Stan Cornyn's book, "Exploding: The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group."

At the end of his book, Cornyn, a former Warner exec who chronicled the company's history from its start in the 1950s through the highest flying early 1970s, disastrous late 1970s, the compact disc boon of the 1980s that inflated industry profits even though sales were stagnant, up until 1999, wondered how his business had come to be almost destroyed. His conclusion: "Our universe got derailed whenever, in our lives, the money became more important than the music."

"What we had accomplished in '69 we had forgotten by '99", he wrote. "When money changed from being a wondrous shower and became ruler over all, everything suffered." "If Dylan were starting out today," one of his friends, record producer Bones Howe, said, "he'd have to start selling through the Internet."

Cornyn and friends discovered they were a bridge between music makers and the public, "glorified middlemen," in his terms. Cornyn wrote there is "no rule that middlemen should earn money forever. Our business, therefore, was not to be defined just as stores, we agreed, nor just as music (think spoken; think video;) not even by any tangible configuration (grooves or pits), not as radio (programmed-by-others), not as jukeboxes (pay-per-listen). All those forms of our business today have come and may, in the future, go. Companies and executives, too, they come and they go. Discs and tapes may come and go. What survives is getting people the music they want when they want it." The book was written in 2002.

A couple of days after the Biden meeting, Alec Ross, the senior advisor for Innovation at the State Department, described an attitude in his world similar to that of the Big Media companies. Ross is striving mightily to introduce new technologies and techniques to diplomacy and meeting resistance along the way. In a speech Dec. 17 at the Brookings Institution, Ross said: "People who think that we ought to hunker down and slow down our use of these tools because of the inherent risks may as well click their heels together and say 'There's no time like 1955.' Times have changed and those changes require pivots in our statecraft. Look, if Paul Revere were alive today, he wouldn't have taken a midnight ride from Boston to Lexington, he would have just used Twitter. And the lantern hangers would have helped make it viral."

So put the Biden meeting with Big Media down as "naughty."

On the other hand, there was lots that fell into the "nice" category. The same day that Biden had his closed-door session, there was a fabulous workshop at the FCC that served as a perfect counterpoint to the closed, enforcement-heavy White House meeting. The session on "Speech, Democracy and the Open Internet," featured content producers from across the political spectrum extolling the virtues of today's Internet without gatekeepers. It would be enlightening for the crew which attended the White House meeting to watch.

Conservative Instapundit Glenn Reynolds lauded the fact that "on the Internet, everybody is equal," while Jonathan Moore from rowdyorbit told his story of being able deal with his frustration about the lack of material for people of color, while video producer and actor Ruth Livier told of the opportunities an open Internet afforded her. Garlin Gilchrist of the Center for Community Change talked about the advantages of online organizing and Michele Combs of the Christian Coalition talked about the importance of an Internet open to all. Others told similar stories of the use of the online medium for enlightening purposes. The attendees at the Biden meeting should check it out.

Ross's speech was about the promise of "connection technologies," with an emphasis on mobile applications. "The opportunity as we perceive it at the State Department is to use this access as a way of connecting people to information and resources that will help educationally or economically empower them," Ross said, using examples of promoting mobile payments in Kenya to cut replace the need for cash.

Ross said he realized the dual nature of technology in that enemies can use mobile applications, social media and other techniques as well. But, he added: "What excites us at the State Department is not the technology itself, but how it can be applied to foster good governance, combat corruption, and to advance our diplomatic and development goals. It is important to remember that technology is just a tool and that it can be used by bad guys as well as good guys; and our challenge now that we are past the tipping point of global connectedness is to harness it for good." Put that frame of mind into the "nice" category.

On the same day that Ross gave his speech, Dec. 17, Biden popped up again, this time to announce the first $183 million in the stimulus grants to enable high-speed access. There were grants to help build Internet access in rural Georgia, New York, Maine and South Dakota from the Commerce Department and eight more through the Agriculture Department. There was money for public computing centers in Arizona, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Washington state.

For his part, Biden said all the right things, lauding the grants as an "historic investment," talking about how people will do more with Web sites and how education will improve. "The sky is the limit," Biden said, in remarks that would fall into the "nice" category.

One wonders, however, whether Biden mentioned this trip to his Big Media friends just a couple of days earlier and, if so, what their thoughts were. On one hand, they could think, "Great. More broadband means more ways to reach more customers with our movies and music, and for them to interact with us." Those would be nice thoughts.

On the other hand, a cynic might wonder whether some of the guests at the White House gathering were thinking, "OMG, more opportunities for piracy. It's not enough that country music is wrecked now, but more networks in rural America will kill off what's left. Does the country have to spend money for high-speed Internet? That's even more Internet capacity that we will have to run our surveillance on. What a headache!" Those thoughts would be "naughty" indeed.

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