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As many commentators have pointed out in recent weeks, the scandal over MPs’ expenses reflects a deeper crisis of confidence in the state of UK politics. Further, the election of Barack Obama in the US on a manifesto of radical change and the protests in Iran clearly show the clamour for political transformation stretches beyond our shores. But these events have also presented a rare opportunity for voices calling for change to make themselves heard beyond the elite circles normally interested in such issues.
In the last of this year’s Reith Lectures (broadcast yesterday), Harvard professor Michael Sandel gave a compelling analysis of the problem. The world faces dire environmental, social and economic challenges with which our political systems seem wholly ill-equipped to deal. The narrow market-driven focus of politics devalues democratic debate by framing complex moral questions and value judgements in purely monetary terms. For example, he cited the over-reliance on cost-benefit analysis in making critical policy decisions. “It is a spurious science that shifts decision-making from democratic politics to technocrats,” he said. “Democratic government is radically devalued if reduced to the role of handmaiden to the market economy…We have come to think of public life as an extension of markets, as economics by other means. But a healthy democracy requires that we think of ourselves less as consumers and more as citizens,” said Sandel.
I was reminded of another talk I heard earlier this week on TED, where US educationalist Liz Coleman called for radical reform in liberal arts education. Coleman believes the goal of academia should be a system that promotes a breadth of interdisciplinary knowedge and a yearning to engage with real-world issues, rather than to create an elite of experts focussed on ever-narrower specialisms. This transformation, she argued, was also crucial to reinvigorating public engagement with politics. “There is no such thing as a viable democracy made up of experts, zealots, politicians and spectators,” she said.
In his Reith lectures, Sandel points out that if we are to succeed in creating a ‘politics of the common good’, then we must reinvigorate public debate and address the complex moral questions that underlie many of the monumental challenges we face. However, he offered few practical suggestions of how we might bring this new politics about and notably failed to examine the burgeoning potential of the Internet to facilitate debate and organisation among citizens.
Others, however, are certainly thinking along these lines. In his recent TED talk, respected social media guru Clay Shirky illustrates how the Internet and social media tools are already creating more bottom-up engagement with the political process - for example, empowering people to oversee the smooth running of elections by monitoring and uploading evidence of voter-suppression techniques at polling stations, or giving them the opportunity to organise and make their voices heard on particular issues.
But such bottom-up action also needs to be supported by top-down initiatives to bring the political process closer to the citizenry. This means introducing much more transparency across government, and putting in place mechanisms that allow public participation in decision-making. Again, the Internet and online social media today make this a much more realistic proposition. In The Independent last Friday, MySociety’s Tom Steinberg wrote: “One of the most pressing information problems the Internet can help solve is the problem of producing better laws, and new laws that more people have seen before they’re hit over the head by their practical consequences.”
Steinberg’s essay was part of a series the paper is publishing as a prelude to Monday’s Reboot Britain conference, which will explore how we can “take advantage of the radically networked digital world we now live in to help revive our economy, rebuild our democratic structures and improve public services”. Other essays in the series (by the likes of Lee Bryant, Andy Hobsbawm and Paul Miller) explore many more practical suggestions for transforming political engagement and tackling our national problems. The Guardian’s Activate 09 summit today (tagline: “Politics, economics, technology and society: Building a better future through the internet”) has been pursuing a similar agenda, and I’ve been following tweets with interest [edit: Roo Reynolds has now produced a great summary of the event here].
I’ll be attending Reboot Britain next week and look forward to hearing even more good ideas. But ideas on their own aren’t enough. Those of us calling for change need to build a momentum that becomes unstoppable, and that involves presenting a compelling vision of what our politics could be - a vision that captures the public imagination and puts the onus on politicians to respond with meaningful and lasting structural changes. Let’s show people what an engaged citizenry can really mean.
One of the big barriers in the way of commercial content creators (be they businesses or individuals) adopting web-based applications and services is the onerous terms and conditions these often present. Blanket ‘rights grab’ clauses are common, with even big names like Facebook and Google falling foul of the practice.
Talk to such companies and they brush off such terms as necessary legalese. You need to waive all your legal and moral rights to everything you post on/upload to/share with/create using their service, they say, because they need the right to handle your work and to copy and display it on the site without putting themselves at risk of breaching any laws. *Of course* they don’t intend to issue that song you posted as a chargeable digital download or use it as the soundtrack to an advertisement for their site without paying you. *Naturally* they’re not going to start flogging T-shirts based on that design you uploaded. And it would be *nonsense* to suggest they’d claim ownership over something you used their service to collaborate on with others.
It’s certainly true that if they did, they would likely face a wave of bad publicity and would probably also be on pretty dodgy legal ground, particularly if they’d given public assurances that their terms should not be interpreted in a particular way. But many have not made such assurances, and in some cases the threat of bad publicity might be outweighed by commercial advantages. If a business is on the brink of collapse, for example, there is a clear incentive for them (or for any organisation acquiring them, which may have entirely different values to those of the original founders) to attempt to claw back whatever revenue they can within the law.
That’s why anyone posting valuable content is going to be increasingly vigilant about exactly what they’re signing up to, as evidenced by this interesting and much-shared post from the Advancing Usability blog earlier this month, which compares the terms and conditions of video hosting sites in Canada. The lesson for service providers here is that if you want your social web application or service to attract professional content creators in future, you need to be clear that you’re not going to hijack their work. The problem is that legalese and plainspeak are mutually exclusive. In most cases, companies do not want to hijack users’ work, they simply want to cover their backs. But legal teams, used to the click-through-without-reading culture, seem to have got into the habit of being cautious to the point of complacency.
So how can service providers strike the right balance? The best example I’ve seen to date is from Aviary.com, an innovative start-up service offering a suite of web-based creative design apps. Aviary makes use of non-commercial Creative Commons licensing to ensure it has the permissions necessary to store and display creations users have posted publicly on the site without claiming commercial copyright over the works. Users also have the option to keep their work private if they choose, in which case the CC licence won’t be applied. When I spoke to Aviary co-founder Michael Galpert a few weeks ago, he told me: “We’re applying the CC licence to publicly-displayed works because we don’t want to be confrtonted with any legal problems. But in order for an artist to have full control over their work they will sometimes want to retain full copyright, so we also give them that option.”
More importantly Aviary’s terms and conditions, while appearing in the usual legalese, are accompanied by a layperson-friendly sidebar clarifying exactly what those terms mean in practice. Galpert said: “Usually people assume because a lawyer’s approved something they can just slap it on their site. But the user or customer doesn’t necessarily understand the legal-speak. So even though a company might have their users’ rights in mind, it doesn’t come across that way when all that appears is a bunch of impenetrable jargon. Avi [Muchnick, co-founder and CEO] was intent on making our terms clear to everyone. Fortunately, he went to law school so he understands the legalese. When the document came back from the lawyers he slogged through the whole thing himself, translating it into everyday language to make sure it was legible for anyone coming to the site.”
The sidebar summary includes such unambiguous statements as:
- “You own your content.”
- “Some content may be licensed under Creative Commons.”
- “If you allow another user to make a derivative, you still own your work.”
- “You can download anything on the site for personal, non-commercial use only. Other uses are not OK (unless you purchased the work from the creator).”
My guess is that when presented with a choice of comparable services, users will increasingly opt for those displaying fair, clear and unambiguous terms like Aviary’s. Which gives me heart the trend will catch on. Who knows, perhaps the new game for lawyers might be to move away from their traditional plays of occlusion, obfuscation and obscurity. Now that really would be progress.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post over at Steria Exchange outlining why the threat of litigation over digital copyright infringements highlighted the need for a ‘commercial commons’ – a pool of information, software, media and other resources that could be shared freely among individuals and organisations. This could benefit everyone enormously – making open web collaboration easier and helping businesses to innovate products and services far more rapidly and cheaply than in the past. Some of the mechanisms to enable this are already well established, including initiatives such as open source and Creative Commons. But while these point the way forward, they will need to be built upon and championed more widely.
Opening up intellectual property also has clear social benefits. The front page of Saturday’s Guardian reported that Andrew Witty, the new boss of drugs giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), plans to put all its proprietary chemicals and processes that could help find new drugs for neglected diseases into an open ‘patent pool’, so they can be freely shared by researchers everywhere. In an unprecedented multi-pronged initiative, the company is also slashing the prices of drugs for the developing world, reinvesting 20% of profits it makes in the poorest countries in hospitals, clinics and staff for those countries, and spearheading a collaborative hunt for treatments to tropical diseases.
This bears out what I wrote in my opening post on this blog about the need for enlightened businesses to put social and community responsibilities ahead of short-term profit. Witty clearly understands this and is to be highly commended for making a radical move that marks out GSK as a pioneering corporate player of the new game. As he told the Guardian: “I think the shareholders understand this and it’s my job to make sure I can explain it. I think we can. I think it’s absolutely the kind of thing large global companies need to be demonstrating, that they’ve got a more balanced view of the world than short-term returns.”
Commenting on GSK’s move in Monday’s Telegraph, George Poynter echoed this message, arguing the credit crunch could herald a new moral economy. “In a new environment in which earnings growth is less available to avaricious shareholders, competition begins to have looser parameters and the demand on directors is not so much to prosper as to survive. GSK may well be recognising that its own survival, and that of its competitors, is dependent on the survival of its markets. To serve its markets is, in the long run, to serve its shareholders. This is an important development, because it implies that the market economy has to adjust structurally before corporate morality can follow,” Poynter wrote.
I share Poynter’s view, but the reasons for GSK’s move go beyond both altruism and the long-term survival of its markets. This will also boost the company’s reputation among the public and governments, as well as putting pressure on its competitors to follow suit (which Witty has called for). More profoundly, it illustrates how social responsibility is central to the hunt for talent. As a global player in the pharmaceutical industry, GSK needs to attract the best scientists and researchers in order to stay ahead of the competition. Most of these people would relish the chance to work on projects, or for a company, that helped to solve pressing real-world problems, rather than just developing lucrative products to line shareholders’ pockets. At a stroke, Witty has made GSK the most attractive pharma company for the most ambitious and talented researchers in the world.
If you think the purpose of business is to make money, you’re wrong. The purpose of business is to best serve its customers and the communities with and within which it operates. Those that succeed in doing so will make money as a by-product, but that is neither their purpose nor their right. Our failure to remember that, and to enshrine it effectively in our regulatory and political systems, has led to catastrophic results – for people, the planet and most recently the public purse. The current financial crisis shows all too clearly what happens when business forgets that its first duty is to its customers and communities – and not to profit. At some point, the bubble bursts and you’re left with a sticky mess.
Recession is here and depression, it seems, may be just around the corner. But when we emerge from this downturn, the most savvy and successful organisations will be playing a new game where flexibility, openness, agility and collaboration are what count. The new game is being made possible by new technology, but it’s being driven by people – and their desire to create a more dynamic and sustainable business world that fosters good ideas and supports talented people.
Companies must also put what the jargonistas call ‘corporate social responsibility’ at the very heart of their organisational strategy, not just as a glib clause in their ‘statement of corporate values’ or marketing literature. There are people who pooh-pooh this as unattainable and idealistic. They maintain ‘ethical business’ is an oxymoron. They say it is unrealistic to expect companies to engage in activities unilaterally that would make them less profitable or competitive.
More enlightened businesses, however – including some of the world’s leading organisations – recognise things like sustainability, open collaboration (both within and beyond the walls of their organisations) and the need to attract talented people are connected issues that they have to take very seriously indeed. They don’t think doing so will make them less profitable or less competitive. Quite the opposite: they realise it is absolutely critical to their long-term success. They know they must operate in a way that balances the needs and concerns of a wide range of communities, many of whom will increasingly be socialising, collaborating and sharing information online – including their customers, their employees, their suppliers, their partners, campaign groups and ad-hoc online coalitions.
I have been arguing many of these points for over a decade, but we are now reaching a tipping point for their acceptance and adoption. Yet many businesses, individuals and legislators are woefully uninformed about and unprepared for the changes they need to make. What do they need to know to start playing? What moves should they make, how quickly and in what order? Are they fit enough? What are the obstacles on the course? How much luck do they need? What’s the cost of entering? How should they put together their teams? How do they win? Who’s already got a head-start? In this blog I plan to explore the rules of this new game, as well as commenting on other connected developments and conversations (and I hope starting some). Some of the answers are out there, others still need to be articulated, developed or formulated. But one thing’s certain – you’d better not take your eyes off the board.