Two decades of internet outage

The Internet has not only disrupted the work of the media in this millennium thus far: it has changed it—and in some cases, overshadowed it. As he steps down after two decades at Internet NZ, Jordan Carter looks back at how the Web is now the primary means of reaching people — and the problems that come with it.

Jordan Carter, outgoing CEO of Internet NZ.

Jordan Carter, outgoing CEO of Internet NZ.
picture: supplied / internet nz

Kiwis could easily use the media without the Internet at all 20 years ago when Jordan Carter first joined Internet NZ, a nonprofit group that campaigns for safe, efficient Internet access and services.

At the time, TV and radio were available for free on the air – and you could keep up with the daily news by purchasing the newspaper, or even subscribing to it.

You still can these days – but if you don’t subscribe to your ISP as well, you’ll miss out on instant news and on-demand entertainment. (On the plus side, you won’t be exposed to the current extremes and overreactions online.)

Jordan Carter has seen the Internet evolve from an interesting choice for the media industry to become the primary source of audiences and innovation.

For some media outlets, the network was a tool of death, making entire sectors redundant and draining their advertising revenue.

Money that used to go into the media, news, and content jobs here is now going abroad to what were once new start-ups, but are now bundled together into the world’s richest and fastest growing companies.

He was in Paris three years ago with Jacinda Arden to broker the Christchurch Call, which aims to stamp out online extremism. Three years later, the prime minister was in the US this week to tell Harvard students “now is the time” to tackle the social media algorithms that amplify extremism.

“I definitely didn’t understand the way it was going to play out in terms of what kind of social consequences it had,” said Jordan Carter. MediaWatch.

No comment

picture: Photo/RNZ Mediawatch

The biggest problem for the media sector has been the disappearance of control over the advertising dollar. Classified ads in the newspaper industry disappeared very quickly. But what people do on online platforms reveals our preferences. If people don’t want to see news content, providers will always switch their algorithms to something else.”

A fair and balanced press is good for democracy. But it turns out, the way our brains are wired, isn’t exactly good for keeping people constantly browsing their feeds. Interacting with the media is just an unfortunate and irrelevant side-effect in terms of big tech platforms.”

The digital divide is real

When Jordan Carter became CEO of Internet NZ, one of the big problems at the time was connectivity and the launch of broadband.

Concerns about the “digital divide” in the media have since subsided. Many people these days talk about internet services as ubiquitous or global – and also fast.

“Radio doesn’t cost you $60 or $80 a month, which a broadband connection can do. The (Covid-19) pandemic was a good case study of the risks surrounding a lack of digital ownership,” he said.

“Families were trying to deal with remote work or children in education and some were not near a network like fiber or even sufficient mobile signal. Affordability was a real big barrier for some people,” he said.

“There is a huge public interest in making sure that nearly everyone has access to broadband, but there’s no discussion going on in our community,” he said.

“Fixing things for people who don’t have (access) is not a giant problem that would require billions of dollars of taxpayer money to solve.

“Successive governments have done a great job with connecting and launching networks. But they (were) are clearly resistant to the small investment that would be needed to sort that out.

“It’s just part of an unfinished business that I’m frustrated with because I left it behind,” he said. MediaWatch.

No comment

picture: Photo/RNZ Colin Tawoos

Ten years ago, media companies were under pressure from shareholders and owners to support their bottom line because hoped-for digital revenue did not fill the void of lost advertising on the Internet and rapid online social media.

Sky TV attempted to merge with Vodafone in a deal Mediawatch interpreted as a sign that it could swallow up media companies as mere content divisions of more profitable telecoms companies.

“I think you were completely wrong. I would be very surprised to see any development of bringing connectivity providers together with the big content providers,” Carter said.

Eventually, the Commerce Commission scrapped the “VodaSky” offering, but media companies began sharing content on other platforms to boost their reach as websites and social media became the main channels for sharing news.

Only in recent years have news companies — and new startups — been created that have seriously tried to make money from online subscribers and donors.

Did the media react quickly enough to the Internet – hence the power and speed of broadband?

“No – but I don’t think any sector has it,” Carter said. MediaWatch.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with Jordan Carter from Internet New Zealand.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with Jordan Carter from Internet New Zealand.
picture: Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade

“Think about the music industry. That started to take on this challenge earlier and for a long time the revenues of the music industry were going down. People were saying it was the end of the music industry, but you don’t hear that kind of thing anymore because business models have evolved.”

“People are still paying to attend live concerts, etc – and I think you’re starting to see in the local media environment some subscriber journalism using systems like Substack and Newsroom for example, where people are willing to put some money into the content,” He said.

“Some of the major media companies are starting to benefit more from the options that technology has made available. It will be great to see where the management acquisition of Stuff will go over the next few years,” he said.

Another variable in recent years is the so-called “culture war” and political battles over freedom of expression. Will that actually make it difficult to make the Internet safe and profitable?

“This is part of the mix that makes some of these issues more difficult to address. We are in an information war — and I think what happened in Ukraine highlights that,” Carter said.

The Russian state has, for a long time, exploited some of the weaknesses in this social media environment to intervene in other countries. They seem to say, “Well, we can never win a direct confrontation with liberal democracies, but we can use these systems that they have built to undermine their social and political cohesion.”

He said, “This is a danger that people are waking up to.”

“Since the invention of publishing, you’ve had people post weird opinions. The problem isn’t that someone chooses to express a ‘random view X’ that they may or may not agree with. The problem is that their systems amplify it in a way that then creates social divisions that weren’t necessarily exist.

“Media systems have stuck to the most controversial and polarizing opinions, and then continue to stir up those opinions in a way that separates people from one another,” he said.

“In New Zealand, we can look at reforms that we might think of as hate speech laws, and say, ‘How do we create systems of law and regulation as we do in every other media environment that can address the systemic spread of this stuff?’ And I think that might take the temperature off a little bit.

“Maybe I’m too optimistic about that. But there is a challenge here with how we deal with online user-generated content systems that have arisen somewhat without keeping up with the law.

“Ten years ago, the spirit was really ‘electronic libertarian.’” Carter said, ‘Stay away, leave the internet to do what you want.’

“What happened in Christchurch was a wake-up call that we really need effective responses to content that pushes the blunt boundaries. I am proud to be part of the evolution of this view.”

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