"We're Google. So sue us". Thus read the headline in The New York Times, atop a story highlighting the number of legal cases brought against the maverick search-engine company in its short history. From pornographers to parenting directories, Google has seen more people in court than most of its rivals.
When Google's purchase of YouTube was announced on 10 October, many commentators believed the company was just buying itself more legal woes. YouTube had been hailed as a revolution in citizen webcasting, but it was unclear how many of the staggering 100 million videos downloaded each day featured original content, and how many were simply copyrighted material uploaded illegally by other users.
The copyright argument against (for example) entire episodes of The Smurfs appearing on YouTube without any compensation to the original creators would seem clear. But Google's ownership of the successful social-networking site adds a new dimension to the evolving relationship between Google and other information-providers - a relationship leading the company to face an increasing number of legal challenges focused on disputes over the frontiers of intellectual-property law.
Google's stated mission is "to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful". It's unsurprising, then, that as the company moves ever-nearer towards its goal, and starts making considerable income in the process, those previously in the business of information might get a little tetchy. So it is that Agence France Presse (AFP) and Belgium's Copiepress have both sued Google under copyright legislation for its unauthorised use of their headlines, text snippets and thumbnail photographs in its GoogleNews service. In September 2006, the Belgian courts ruled in favour of Copiepress; AFP's case is pending.
Also by Becky Hogge in openDemocracy, a selection from her "Virtual reality" column and other articles:
"The Great Firewall of China" (May 2005)
"Why the WSIS? Democracy and cyberspace"
"Global voices: blogging the world"
"Some grown-up questions for Google" (February 2006)
"Internet freedom comes of age" (February 2006)
"Payday for the free internet" (March 2006)
"Internet Hoaxes hit politics" (April 2006)
"Microsoft: closed windows and hidden vistas" (April 2006)
"The battle for net neutrality" (May 2006)
"Open source ubuntu" (May 2006)
"The Crown's copyright con" (July 2006)
"Amnesty's China hit-list" (July 2006)
"Whose space? Abuse and control in social networks"
"Anonymity on the net" (August 2006)
"Revolution at our fingertips"
"Claiming our digital rights"
"Consumer or citizen?" (October 2006)
From Napster to news
Technologists watch these court cases with interest. Setting aside for a moment the significant problems created by all the world's information being accessible through the services of a public limited company, once major news agencies start using the courts to assert their ownership over information, familiar tensions ensue.
The precedent here is the music industry. The assault on the music file-sharing initiative Napster in 1999 - leading eventually to the spectacle of their suing their own customers in peer-to-peer file-sharing cases - made major record labels the internet's bad guy of the moment. The companies' zealous recourse to the courts took the place of what would have been a far more nuanced and intelligent strategy, that of re-examining their business models in light of the information age.
The fact that the music industry had form helped shape the public response. Its image had already been tarnished in the previous decades of commercially-driven Big Media. A climate of concentrated media ownership and a public perception that original and authentic new music was suffering at the hands of tried and tested commercial successes (epitomised in the televisual farce of national talent shows like The X Factor) meant that, as the industry cowered in the oncoming headlights of the digital age, it attracted little sympathy from its previous audience.
The business realities and editorial responses of many commercial news channels mean that they suffer from something of the same image problem. But they have so far fared better, perhaps because they have limited their legal sorties to other commercial players, rather than readers; or perhaps because the industry has generally been faster to embrace the potential of the worldwide web, setting up online news portals that sustain themselves on profits from paper and broadcast channels. Nonetheless, it is quite common to hear veterans of the industry fretting over the future of news reporting, once the next generation of readers - brought up on online news and unlikely to purchase its dead-tree ancestor - come to dominate the market.
GoogleNews is the least of the industry's worries. Many of the channels through which income has flown to the expensive and on the whole profitless endeavours of news reporting and investigative journalism are being increasingly blocked or diverted in the digital age. Readers have demonstrated their disdain for subscription barriers, endangering the future of income similar to today's cover prices. The lucrative classified ads market is already migrating to dedicated sites like Craigslist. Opinion and comment - at least some of it rather good - is now supplied in abundance on the web. Newspapers have always had to battle for audience share - now they are fighting on many fronts.
What, then, will happen to "quality journalism"? Well, some of it can move into the free environment of the web. Individuals who demand no recompense except the sating of obsessive curiosity (and, if they are lucky) the respect of their peers, spend their days sifting meticulously through endless piles of government documents in search of the killer fact and the nugget of scandal. They are already changing the face of investigative journalism. New voices at the frontiers of the blogosphere, collected and showcased by organisations like Global Voices, are already assuming one of the roles of western news bureaus.
Living outside the law
For passing techno-utopians, the fusion of the classic disciplines and talents of "quality journalism" with the technological capacities of the new information age to create a fresh product is a compelling vision. It is also an endeavour worth campaigning for, in a period when independent, democratic voices - from Russia to the Philippines, and including countries more used to thinking of themselves as bastions of free media - are under assault from violence as well as censorship.
But it is also unlikely to be the full picture. This is partly because the evidence suggests that the new technological and business realities are if anything more likely to reinforce rather than replace traditional news-gathering operations. It is also partly because of a defining aspect of existing news organisations.
Traditional news-gatherers must survive on the strength of their brands. The value they must seek to add is authority, because as information flows more freely around the world, disinformation follows. And as some of the world's better known democracies slip further down press freedom indexes (like the one released on 24 October by Reporters Without Borders, which places the United States fifty-third in the world for press freedom) pioneering journalists need safe harbour in institutions that can prevent them from physical assault or financial ruin should they publish something unpopular with or damaging to powerful interests.
This techno-utopian, then, is ready to fight for the future of "quality journalism", with one proviso: that the fight is not fought using the blunt instrument of copyright law. If the knowledge economy is not to be a feudal one, we must put down this weapon that is at once scattergun and landmine for future freedoms - at least until it has been honed to best use for the digital age. Rather, the battle should be fought on the grounds of enriched, strengthened democracies that are supported by vibrant media - both new and old. Because in the court of the internet, the only cases won are based on the future, not the past.