Public confidence in Facebook and Google has been shaken

The great “paying for content” debate of 2009/10 is about to come to an end. In the imminent future one of the world’s major publishers, News Corporation, will put its UK-based newspaper websites behind a payment mechanism. It is, as they say, good to talk, but even better to do. James Murdoch has been a commendably active participant in the debate over the future of content and who should pay to sustain journalism and creativity as an industry rather than just a practice. Then last week he turned his guns on the British Library, in a speech that criticised its plans to release digitised newspaper archive material on to the market. His theme was familiar: that public institutions are in a converged world, providing unwelcome market interventions with their public service approach. Yet he may have lost some fans of his BBC bashing – the British Library is the Queen Mother of intellectual institutions and no one wants to see her stick being kicked away, whether you agree with the things she says or not.

Five years ago, the idea that News International would have any kind of public beef with the British Library would have taken something of a stretch of the imagination. But, as every institution with content becomes de facto a media institution, the lines between friend and enemy, partner and threat, become increasingly blurred.

What is clear, however, is even if you are Murdoch, and aggressively commercially competitive, or even an organisation such as the BBC, which in its own way has been as competitive as News International, you can only expand your competitor set so far before you are fighting on too many fronts.

News International has picked what, for it, is an obvious but perhaps unwinnable battle in taking on the idea of ownership and copyright. Most of its revenues (though oddly not most of its news revenue) come from the creation of intellectual property and the subsequent protection of copyright. Making a point of pursuing this issue is therefore logical, if ultimately more costly than it is productive.

Paywalls and copyright have become interlinked, but are separate issues. It is possible to exert rights over works and still give them away for free, as Murdoch rightly noted in his speech at University College London. If the issue of direct payment for content is about to become a “so last year” subject, then the control and ownership of both intellectual property and data is going to remain red hot.

The issue of control and ownership is becoming much more acute. In the past few weeks, Facebook, for instance, has been on the receiving end of a public backlash about the level of control and transparency it allows its users. A rather marvellous data graphic in the New York Times demonstrated that Facebook’s privacy policy has grown from a couple of paragraphs to a statement longer than the American constitution in less than five years.

Likewise Google, that other enormous multinational, has suffered a rather tottering time with the revelation that some of its “street view” cars were also gathering public Wi-Fi data, and in many cases keeping the data until ordered to delete it. Both Facebook and Google face potentially enormous reputational damage from breaching public trust. What ties these problems, and content copyright and payment, together is the issue of how ultimately the “market” or “user” will decide who has the correct strategy. In content copyright and in control over personal data, the next chapter will be written as much by public behaviour as by corporate compromise or regulation. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds