[As ever, this is also published on the BBC News website]
Tila Tequila has over one and a half million contacts on MySpace and a profile filled with pages of her scantily-clad form draped over chairs, cars and poles. Visit her page and you get some audio bubblegum to entertain you – apparently a track from her eagerly awaited debut album, for the multi-skilled Tila is a singer as well as a model.
The unauthorized commercial transaction here was that Tequila’s profile included a widget – a small piece of code – that took visitors to the Hooka music service instead of the MySpace-approved Snocap. This egregious attempt to make money without giving a cut to News Corporation, MySpace’s parent company, was duly noticed and punished.
Tequila is clearly a talentless but astonishingly ambitious celebrity wannabe, her profile revealing that she was ‘in an adult relationship’ before she was sixteen, and ‘experimented with drugs and a hardcore lifestyle’ when she moved from Houston t o New York at the age of eighteen.
But we cannot fight only for the rights of those of whom we approve, and a campaign for freedom of expression must include the freedom of those who we find offensive, uninteresting or just a little sad. It must even include their right to make money by selling sanitized pop to an uncritical audience.
For the conflict between Tila Tequila and MySpace, like their earlier argument with Billy Bragg over rights to music uploaded onto the service, highlights an increasingly important issue that faces all net users. The services we are all using and increasingly dependent on, like Flickr and YouTube and FaceBook, are not there to make our lives better or enhance the quality of public participation. They are there to make money for their founders and owners.
Just as the purpose of commercial television is not to make good TV programmes but simply to deliver an aggregated audience to advertisers, so the real point of social networks is not to transform our ways of life but to find new contexts within which we can be exposed to approved commercial messages.
In its early days access to the internet was governed by ‘acceptable use policies’ which prohibited commercial activity of any type. This was reasonable because the network was built, paid for and managed by university departments, government agencies and the military. When it was privatised in the 1990’s all sorts of commercial uses were permitted, and today it is as much as part of the capitalist economy as any shopping mall.
However in the process of privatisation we have given up an important third space, somewhere between the university network and YouTube, a space which we can all use equally and which is dedicated to the public good. We have lost the online equivalent of parks and roads and shopping streets, where the limits on what we can reasonably say and do are set by society as a whole and not by the commercial interests of one company.
I can stand in Petty Cury in Cambridge and shake a tin for a charity, play music and invite passers-by to give me money or preach the gospel to a crowd of unbelievers. If I try the same thing in the nearby Grafton shopping centre I will be asked to desist. One space is public, the other private.
The difference between the shopping street and the mall is one of ownership. The street is council-owned and managed for the public good, while the mall is a private area to which people are granted access on certain conditions.
But the real problem with MySpace and YouTube and Flickr and the many other social spaces, sharing tools and online collaborative mechanisms is not that they are privately owned, it is that there is no public service ethos behind them, and there never can be as long as they are owned by companies that must pursue shareholder value above everything.
It is important that we have and maintain online spaces which offer us the same degree of freedom as the high street, not just for freedom of expression but also for freedom of commerce, since the market matters too.
This does not have to mean a state-owned online social network, although it could do.
We’re all familiar with mutual enterprises and co-operatives that are dedicated to the public, and to charitable foundations that serve the public interest. The BBC is a public body, a corporation established by Royal Charter and not a commercial organisation.
Tila Tequila’s problems with MySpace are just one sign of how the comprehensive privatisation of our online experience limits our freedom of expression. In her case it involved commercial activity, but there are equally limits on free expression that go far beyond what the law would require. One approach to this would be to regulate all such networks, and in the long term we may find that competition policy is applied to MySpace’s commercial links as much as it is to Microsoft’s marketing strategy, but for the moment this is not on the horizon.
A better bet would be to encourage the development of new online spaces, common land on the internet that we can all share, where the freedoms we want when we walk down the street are also available to us online. Because the best way to put pressure on MySpace to open up is to provide users with an open alternative.
Now that open source and free software are well established, well understood and increasingly viewed as a viable alternative to closed, proprietary systems, perhaps its time to focus on open spaces and online freedoms. Even if it does give Tila Tequila an opportunity to sell her ghastly music.