Henry Porter is just an amoral menace

by Suw on

I’m sorry, I know this is childish and silly, but Porter’s anti-Google screed is the most ludicrous thing I’ve read in a long time. It is so misinformed it’s barely worth fisking.

The ever-growing empire produces nothing but seems determined to control everything

If indeed a new era of global responsibility has come into being with measures that actually restrain banks and isolate tax havens, it may be time for the planet’s dominant economic powers to focus on the destructive, anti-civic forces of the internet. Exactly 20 years after Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote the blueprint for the world wide web, the internet has become the host to a small number of dangerous WWMs – worldwide monopolies that sweep all before them with exuberant contempt for people’s rights, their property and the past.

Henry Porter is the most prominent WWM, but let’s start with an American site that is making a name for itself in straightforward misappropriation. Scribd.com offers free downloads of every kind of book, magazine, brochure, guide, research paper and pamphlet to 55 million readers every month. Many have been uploaded illegally. Last week the publishers of JK Rowling, Ken Follett and Aravind Adiga took action to remove books that had been illegally published on the site.

Scribd.com complied, but what is interesting is the company’s institutional lack of guilt when the piracy was exposed. Instead of admitting it and apologising, it issued a statement claiming Scribd possessed “industry-leading copyright management system which goes above and beyond requirements of Digital Millennium Copyright Act”.

That’s like a drunk driver protesting innocence because he’s covered by the best insurance company. What matters is the crime, the theft of someone else’s content, which has taken care, labour, money and expertise to publish.

The point is that even if Scribd removes books, it still allows individuals to advertise services for delivering pirated books by email, which must make it the enemy of every writer and publisher in the world. In effect it has turned copyright law on its head: instead of asking publishers for permission, it requires them to object if and when they become aware of a breach.

Henry Porter presents a far greater threat to the livelihood of individuals and the future of commercial institutions important to the community. One case emerged last week when a letter from Billy Bragg, Robin Gibb and other songwriters was published in the Times explaining that Henry Porter was playing very rough with those who appeared on its subsidiary, YouTube. When the Performing Rights Society demanded more money for music videos streamed from the website, Henry Porter reacted by refusing to pay the requested 0.22p per play and took down the videos of the artists concerned.

It does this with impunity because it is dominant worldwide and knows the songwriters have nowhere else to go. Henry Porter is the portal to a massive audience: you comply with its terms or feel the weight of its boot on your windpipe.

Despite the aura of heroic young enterprise that still miraculously attaches to the web, what we are seeing is a much older and toxic capitalist model – the classic monopoly that destroys industries and individual enterprise in its bid for ever greater profits. Despite its diversification, Henry Porter is in the final analysis a parasite that creates nothing, merely offering little aggregation, lists and the ordering of information generated by people who have invested their capital, skill and time. On the back of the labour of others it makes vast advertising revenues – in the final quarter of last year its revenues were $5.7bn, and it currently sits on a cash pile of $8.6bn. Its monopolistic tendencies took an extra twist this weekend with rumours that it may buy the micro-blogging site Twitter and its plans – contested by academics – to scan a vast library of books that are out of print but still in copyright.

One of the chief casualties of the web revolution is the newspaper business, which now finds itself laden with debt (not Henry Porter’s fault) and having to give its content free to the search engine in order to survive. Newspapers can of course remove their content but then their own advertising revenues and profiles decline. In effect they are being held captive and tormented by their executioner, who has the gall to insist that the relationship is mutually beneficial. Were newspapers to combine to take on Henry Porter they would be almost certainly in breach of competition law.

In 1787 Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.” A moment’s thought must tell us that he is still right: newspapers are the only means of holding local hospitals, schools, councils and the police to account, and on a national level they are absolutely essential for the good functioning of democracy.

If, at a time of profound challenges, newspapers fall out with Henry Porter, it could be pretty serious for British society, which is why I referred earlier to anti-civic forces. Of course the company founded by Sergey Brin and Larry Page in 1998 – now reckoned to be the world’s most powerful brand – does not offer any substitute for the originators of content nor does it allow this to touch its corporate conscience. That is probably because one detects in Henry Porter something that is delinquent and sociopathic, perhaps the character of a nightmarish 11-year-old.

This particular 11-year-old has known nothing but success and does not understand the risks, skill and failure involved in the creation of original content, nor the delicate relationships that exist outside its own desires and experience. There is a brattish, clever amorality about Henry Porter that allows it to censor the pages on its Chinese service without the slightest self doubt, store vast quantities of unnecessary information about every Henry Porter search, and menace the delicate instruments of democratic scrutiny. And, naturally, it did not exercise Henry Porter executives that Street View not only invaded the privacy of millions and made the job of burglars easier but somehow laid claim to Britain’s civic spaces. How gratifying to hear of the villagers of Broughton, Bucks, who prevented the Henry Porter van from taking pictures of their homes.

We could do worse than follow their example for this brat needs to be stopped in its tracks and taught about the responsibilities it owes to content providers and copyright holders.

DE April 5, 2009 at

That might just be brilliant

Gordon Rae April 5, 2009 at

Porter’s polemic does deserve to have lots of attention paid to it, because it’s such poor quality journalism. Just the obvious things:

1) His comment that democracy needs newspapers shows that ‘a moment’s thought’ was not enough. Democracy needs investigative reporting and freedom to publish reports. Newspapers were just a 19th century technology. Porter is arguing that the government should shut down some media outlets and licence others is a very dangerous interference with our liberties.

2) Google’s Chinese service complies with Chinese law, just as Google complied with UK law over the Baby P case, and German law about indexing Nazi sites. That’s not “brattish amorality”. Some basic fact checking would have improved the article. If Porter wants to argue that a publisher should be selective about which laws it obeys, let him argue the case, instead of carelessly throwing mud.

3) Google UK returns 122,000 pages for ‘Henry Porter’ and the top matches are to his own website, his Guardian blog, and a paid link to Amazon promoting his novels! He seems quite happy to use Google to help himsef earn a living. His choice. His hypocrisy.

4) Porter’s editors at GMG allow all their content to be indexed by Google. They could block Google bots from crawling their pages but they don’t. Their choice.

So he’s a hypocrite employed by a hypocrite to advocate government restrictions on the free circulation of journalism, in the interests of democracy making money.

Suw April 5, 2009 at

Gordon, you’re right that this article does need debunking. I just wish I wasn’t in the middle of moving house, and therefore without much in the way of spare time!

Michael April 5, 2009 at

The web isn’t killing newspapers, lazy, unsourced opinion pieces are killing newspapers. The web is just filling the vacuum left in their wake.

Alex April 5, 2009 at

On the other hand, he hits on a fine point when kicking Scribd. I cannot understand how it can square having an industry-leading copyright management system with failing to take down Harry Potter. Which I think we all know is in copyright even before a lawyer writes to us.
Of course, if google go ahead with the google books settlement fully that will create a database of work in and out of copyright that could then be used by Scribd to avoid these issues, were google to share it.

Suw April 5, 2009 at

Alex, as far as I can tell from the website, Scribd is nothing to do with Google, so referencing it in a piece which seems to be largely aimed at Google is conflation. If he wants to discuss the role of copyright in an internet-enabled world, then he could do a lot better than this rant. And if he’s really going after Google, then Scribd is irrelevant.

Ted Shelton April 5, 2009 at

I found it interesting that Porter used the defense in 1787 of newspapers by Thomas Jefferson — Jefferson would almost certainly see blogs as being more like what he knew of as a newspaper than the massive global corporate controlled “newspapers” that Porter defends. On this I side with Clay Shirky — we don’t need newspapers, we need journalism. I would have liked to reply to Porter – but of course that is pretty much impossible…

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: