Digital Infrastructure and Public Interest

Vince Stehle

What is the best way to promote a vibrant and diverse exchange of educational information, cultural expression, and political discourse over the Internet? What type of service—commercial enterprise, government agency, or non-commercial organization—can be counted on to insure that quality and diversity are reflected prominently? Recent experience suggests that a new type of hybrid organization, driven by a strong non-commercial mission but operating with success in the consumer marketplace, may offer the optimal balance of financial sustainability and commitment to the public interest.

The Internet has permitted, for the first time in history, a highly efficient method of collective action that permits large-scale achievements with relatively little investment and operating revenues. According to Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, “Our electronic networks are enabling novel forms of collective action, enabling the creation of collaborative groups that are larger and more distributed than at any other time in history.” [See review by Tom Borrup]

Three powerful examples of this new type of enterprise are: Wikipedia, the Mozilla Foundation, which publishes the popular Firefox web browser; and the Participatory Culture Foundation, which has released the online video player Miro. Each of them operates a popular online consumer information service, operating with a relatively small paid staff and thousands of volunteers who help to accomplish significant work for the organization. Perhaps most remarkable among them, Wikipedia publishes a user-created encyclopedia that ranks as the eighth largest web site on the Internet (according to web-tracking service Alexa), operating on a budget of just over $2 million last year.

However efficient these organizations are, they are not entirely without costs. And they are particularly hard to grow from scratch, because they have to operate at a very large scale to demonstrate their value to potential creators and consumers. Unfortunately, there is very little capital available for such start-up efforts. While there are billions of dollars in Silicon Valley venture firms seeking to invest in the next Google, Facebook, or YouTube, there is no equivalent capital pool available for investment in the expansion of social enterprises operating in the public interest. So the real challenge is for grantmakers to figure out how to effectively identify, vet, and support promising new media and information services that put the public interest before commercial profits.

It may be instructive, however, to first think about how the market can let us down, even—and perhaps especially—in the realm of the Internet.

In 1995, Rob Glaser—fresh from a successful stint at Microsoft—founded a new company—Progressive Networks, which was initially intended to help distribute politically progressive ideas to counter-balance the strength of conservative organizations in getting their message out. Along the way, Glaser stumbled upon an early version of software that would make it feasible, for the first time, to transmit audio content over the Internet. He quickly re-directed his company to focus on software development, changed the name to RealNetworks and took the company public.

Now, RealNetworks is a powerhouse in streaming media, delivering a large share of the market in audio and video content over the web. Now that RealNetworks has achieved a strong position in the marketplace, it's interesting to go back to the original mission of the company—promoting progressive content in the media. How are they doing?

On a recent morning, the RealNetworks media service Rhapsody sent out an online alert touting a typical mix of programming available. Two highlights: One implores users to “See pics of pop's wildest girls” and another promises images of reckless celebrities. “Their music may excite us, but their behavior is absolutely boorish.” Most days Rhapsody offers a similar come-on.

The simple truth is the market wants what the market wants. And even with the best of intentions a commercial media enterprise is generally going to deliver content choices that follow the cold calculus of the marketplace. For RealNetworks, née Progressive Networks, it is a far cry from the company's original mission to help spread politically progressive ideas.

This example is not intended to castigate Rob Glaser or RealNetworks for abandoning their original mission. And it's not meant to proclaim moral indignation in the face of more cleavage or carnage. It's just a reality. There's a reason for the term crass commercialism, after all.

And there's nothing new or special about the Internet that drags commercial expression down. Witness the trajectory of Arts and Entertainment, a cable television service that started out with a high-minded purpose and, somewhere along the way to becoming just “A & E,” found itself serving up heaping portions of Dog the Bounty Hunter, a foul cocktail of human melodrama.

Given the gravitational pull of the market to exert a lowest-common-denominator effect on programming, the challenge remains: How to organize Internet services that stick to their missions and serve the public interest, rather than simply returning a profit to shareholders. Equally, it is a challenge for grantmakers who would like to create an information eco-system where the public interest is served in a sustainable way.

Of the three organizations cited above—Wikipedia, Mozilla, and the Participatory Culture Foundation (PCF)—the Miro online video player created by PCF is the newest and most immediately relevant example for this discussion. Begun in 2005 with initial support from Lotus founder Mitch Kapor's Open Source Application Foundation and from Skyline Public Works, a charitable fund of Andy and Deborah Rappaport, PCF sought to create a free and open-source software tool that would enable users to view any freely-downloadable video content available on the Internet. Appearing first in beta form as The Democracy Player, then moving to full public launch as Miro, the player has quickly become a popular and critically acclaimed method for viewing video content.

Upon public launch in November 2007, Fortune Magazine's online technology blog declared simply: “I have seen the future of Internet TV and it is an application called Miro.”

The mission of PCF is lofty—“to build a television system that is more open than ever before.” Further, the organization strives “to eliminate gatekeepers, corporate control, and centralization as (it) works toward a new vision of open media where everyone can create, curate and participate.” And it is a miracle of the modern public interest Internet enterprise that Miro is able to compete with commercial companies that are capitalized at many, many times its size.

In just a few short years, Miro has provided a way to view, in full-screen and high-resolution quality, content that might otherwise have to be delivered via streaming media windows, which for technical reasons tend to appear in smaller windows with lower resolution. More to the point, Miro allows every consumer and creator to establish their own connection, without a commercial intermediary getting in the way. The response has been tremendous. Already, there are over 5,000 channels of content featured on the Miro Guide, a catalogue of content viewable on the Miro Player, featuring everything from nightly newscasts of the major broadcast channels ABC, CBS, and NBC to daily feeds of Amy Goodman's Democracy Now. The player is an especially good way to view science programs in High Definition, such as KQED's Quest, and astronomy shows like NASA's Hubblecast featuring images from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Miro is like Tivo for the Internet, in that you can find a program that you would like to see, download it to your computer, and watch it whenever you want, rather than when it is broadcast. It's a great way to view familiar programs from PBS, like Bill Moyers Journal and Sesame Street, but also public broadcasting programs from other countries, including Canada, Germany, Norway, and many others. One of the breakaway hits on Miro is from Norwegian State Television (NRK), called Nordkalotten 365, in which a guy and his dog roam through the wilderness north of the Arctic Circle with nothing but their canoe and an HD camera. By deciding to distribute their program directly to Internet viewers using Miro and BitTorrent (peer-to-peer file sharing software), NRK was able to reach an online audience of more than 100,000 viewers at a cost of just $300, showing that the economics of broadband TV have basically made it possible for anyone to reach an infinite audience at a negligible cost.

The arts are also well represented on Miro, especially in PBS programs like One From the Top at Carnegie Hall, featuring young performers in concert and in vignettes about their lives, as well as content produced independently by arts organizations, like the video podcasts produced by the Philharmonia Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis, and Jazz at Lincoln Center, both of which both feature highlights and previews from upcoming performances and recent recording releases.

Although it has received support from a few foundations such as the Knight and Surdna foundations and the Phoebe Haas Charitable Trust, as with many nonprofit start-ups that do not correspond to standard funding categories, Miro continues to struggle financially. Even so, it has been able to compete effectively against much larger commercial enterprises because of the way it distributes work beyond paid staff to hundreds of volunteers who carry out significant elements of its operations, such as ranking content in the Miro Guide, translating the site into fifty languages, and responding to user problems in a collective effort to create the most effective service possible. If all of those volunteers were paid for the critical services they provide to the site, the budget would have to be roughly forty times as large, according to Executive Director Nicholas Reville.

Going beyond their own experience, two of the founders of PCF, Nicholas Reville and Holmes Wilson, have written a short white paper, Sustainable Public Media Infrastructure, identifying the special opportunity available to funders who want to help build sustainable public media infrastructure, “creating permanent, sustainable public knowledge and communications infrastructure designed for public benefit.” In their paper, Reville and Wilson discuss the tremendous success of Wikipedia and Mozilla's Firefox in serving both to advance the public interest and to reach a vast consumer audience.

“Mozilla's mission is to promote open communication standards on the web,” according to the authors. “It accomplishes this goal by building open-source technology based on shared publicly-defined standards.” After just five years of operations, Firefox has achieved an astounding 20 percent market share, competing with Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser. Given its extensive market reach, Firefox has also established revenue generating partnerships that are now generating about $70 million without compromising its charitable mission.

Reville and Wilson point out one of the key takeaways of the Mozilla example: “Nonprofits have competitive advantages in the marketplace: high levels of trust and credibility, and volunteer communities that can multiply the reach of the paid staff.”

Firefox, Wikipedia, and now Miro have all shown that non-commercial media and technology enterprises can achieve great success in the consumer marketplace without surrendering their missions to the marketplace. Philanthropy needs to acknowledge that this opportunity is an imperative that requires us to find ways to identify, evaluate, and support the non-commercial work that will help build a public interest infrastructure to promote the free exchange of knowledge over the Internet.

If we don't, we will always have lots of “pics of pop's wildest girls” to keep us amused.

Vince Stehle is program director for Nonprofit Sector Support,
Surdna Foundation