In New-Media World, How Much Freedom of Information Can We Expect?

Chinese Censorship, Power of Apple Are Reminders That There Are Still Forces Controlling Things

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VALENCIA, Spain (AdAge.com) -- Social media is opening up communication around the world, delegates to the Festival of Media in Spain heard Monday, but government censorship in China and growing power at a certain tech company in Cupertino, Calif., imply that information still can't always be free.

The line about some information's desire to be free, of course, really refers to its pricing, but recent developments raise another line of argument: How much freedom, as in liberty, can we expect for information in the new new-media world?

Jimmy Wales
Jimmy Wales
Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, suggested that information would only become more democratic as events unfold. Nearly nobody in the auditorium raised a hand when Mr. Wales, delivering the opening keynote at the festival, asked how many people present had actually edited an entry on Wikipedia. But when he asked the same question in a London high school, he said, 60% of the students present put up their hands.

Or take another example: Later his audience at the festival chose social media as the big game-changer in communications' near future, but Mr. Wales chose broadband internet access. The audience of media-agency executives, marketing heads and similar types take broadband for granted, Mr. Wales argued, but the next few years will see millions of people in the developing world get high-speed access to the web. "We'll hear from people we've never heard from before," he said.

Whether social media or greater access to the internet plays a bigger role, communication and media will become less centrally controlled and more widely participatory.

But the Chinese government's censorship of Wikipedia, something Mr. Wales also brought up, is a reminder that there are still forces working to retain traditional control. He compared media companies' operation in China to American companies' business in apartheid South Africa, both cases in which some argued that participation was a more effective way to improve the situation than isolation. "Reasonable people can differ," he said.

How companies can control information
In a very different way -- this is not to equate Apple with a repressive, authoritarian government -- later festival conversations about the Apple iPad reminded attendees just how much control a technology company can exert over the flow and exchange of information.

The most important moment to remember from the iPad's launch event was Apple CEO Steve Jobs' boast that the company already has 125 million consumer accounts with credit-card information, Ad Age columnist Simon Dumenco said in a presentation at the festival Monday afternoon. (Ad Age is one of the Festival of Media's sponsors.) The newspaper and magazine publishers now hoping the iPad can inject their businesses with new energy are accustomed to controlling their relationships with readers. Now Apple, even if it shares consumer information with publishers on the iPad, is the one controlling those relationships.

Apple's introduction of its iAd mobile advertising platform seals its hold over the media and consumers using its devices more firmly still.

And then there are the requirements over media products themselves that Apple can set. Witness its ban on apps programmed in any but a few Apple-approved languages, which disrupted Conde Nast's plan to build a Wired magazine iPad app using Adobe, whose software Conde uses to publish it's traditional print products.

The good news for anyone concerned about Apple's power, however, is that competition is coming. Tablet computers that aren't so restrictive will be along soon, letting consumers compare the Wired edition on the newcomers, perhaps, with the Wired edition on the iPad.

When the audience was polled by electronic device on Monday, moreover, 64% called the iPad "fantastic," but still 36% called it a "fad." And of course anybody can edit Wikipedia from an iPad. So media freedom, like free media, seems to still have momentum.

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