The Question of Freedom at the Open Video Conference

Does free video uploading and downloading equal democracy? I asked myself this question during the recent Open Video Conference, organized by the Information Society Project at the Yale Law School and the Open Video Alliance, an umbrella coalition for the development of an “open video ecosystem”: a “movement to promote free expression and innovation in online video.” Conference sponsors include Mozilla, Redhat, Intelligent Television, and Livestream. The conference was held at New York University’s Vanderbilt Hall, home of the NYU Law School from June 19-21, 2009. I attended several of the panels at the conference, although it was primarily Yochai Benkler’s opening keynote that was of concern.

The mission statement for the conference reads, “Open Video is a movement to promote free expression and innovation in online video." The conference and its affiliates aimed to respond to outdated copyright law in an attempt to open the limits on the circulation and distribution of copyrighted material. Gabriella Coleman of New York University in her talk, “The Politics and Poetics of DeCSS,” demonstrated the historical connection between code and free speech. Coleman traced the relationship back to John Stuart Mill, who first equated Romantic notions with utilitarian ones in order to justify free speech. In the 20th century, figures such as Richard Stallman, Peter Salins, and Daniel Bernstein, all further solidified the connection between legal rights and code. This history, Coleman points out, thus explains the popularity of today’s research into the triumvirate of copyright, law, and culture. Ideally, the open video culture sought after would be one that would allow for the distribution and use of copyrighted video content without the fear of lawsuits or legal action.

Yochai Benkler, author of the celebrated book, The Wealth of Networks (2006) took the stage in the morning on Friday June 19. His conflation of the freedom to access content, as noted above, with freedom in general, was suspect. Benkler argued that Open Video was indicative of an “open democracy for everyone, everywhere, all the time.” Open Video Culture, he said, would usher in the possibility for “anyone to express oneself, be creative and innovative.” Benkler also claimed that because “millions of people are now looking at [social and political] problems” we will thus find millions of, “distributed solutions.” In this “free” culture, he continued, “human creativity would move to the core.” Aside from the seemingly naïve conflation of terms, exactly which society, which “everyone,” and which economic system did Benkler have in mind?

Rhizome’s founder, Mark Tribe, also presented at the conference with Rhizome’s Executive Director, Lauren Cornell. After the talk, Tribe shed some light on the significance of Benkler’s broad statements. He said that Benkler is partially correct, social media has granted more freedom. For instance, look at what the Yes Men can do. But at the same time, he added, this freedom has no effect on social relations, economic inequity and will not necessarily increase freedoms for those whom it is denied. Lastly, it does not automatically equal audiences.

It is true. When Benkler states that in “Transparent culture, anyone can innovate” and thus become “better readers,” this is correct, in theory. For instance, random users may upload a video of a protest or demonstration to YouTube, or a mashup video of something they found online---they may make critical commentaries, subvert normative journalistic channels, and gain more insight into how television and mass media products are produced and assembled. But again, this does not guarantee more perceptive readers, critical content, or an audience for that material. As László Barabási points out, the majority of internet traffic still flows through major hubs—hubs like Amazon and Yahoo, which means that online content generally continues to rely on traditional media channels for distribution. Even if an independent new media organization may gain an audience, such as Boing Boing, or Rhizome, they may not be guaranteed the financial support needed to sustain on a long-term basis (this was the focus of Xeni Jardin’s talk at the conference, a reporter from Boing Boing).

The situation is nicely summed up by media scholar Geert Lovink, in his recent manifesto written with Ned Rossiter. “Web 2.0” they explain, “is not for free. ‘Free as in free beer’ is not like ‘free as in freedom’. Open does not equal free. These days ‘free’ is just another word for service economies…. Where is the enemy? Not on Facebook, where you can only have ‘friends’. What Web 2.0 lacks is the technique of antagonistic linkage. Instead, we are confronted with the Tyranny of Positive Energy...” The utopianism of “open and free” video culture, it seems, is correct in that it allows people to do things they could not do before. But this does not automatically equal change or democracy in itself. Any proclamation of social utopia deserves a second look, yet we also need to understand why Benkler framed his arguments in the way he did that morning--speaking to an audience of lawyers, corporate investors, sponsors, and public relations representatives.