When companies, regulators and governments sit down to figure out what flies with the Internet community, they should probably start by analyzing the effects of two simple concepts: "Yes, you can," and "No, you can't."
Products and laws that succeed with the online community tend to have at their core the positive side of this opposing duality of permission. Netflix is a good example. The video streaming service has impressively signed up 23 million customers in only three years by telling people "Yes, you can" – in the form of availability and cost. Its convenient service can be used on just about every gadget at a price that many people have obviously found compelling.
While Netflix prevents its TV shows and movies from being copied and therefore pirated – essentially saying "No, you can't" – it's still relatively easy to do with screen-capture software. Yet, few people have even thought of doing so because it's just not worth the time, given the value of the other allowances.
On the flip side, the past year has also been marked by anger over Internet users being told "No, you can't." Last year, Canadians fought back against attempts to end unlimited downloading plans in the usage-based billing saga, while earlier this year millions of Americans protested the Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have led to the blocking of websites that facilitate copyright infringement. The related Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement provoked similar rallies in Europe.
For politicians, the downside of such unrest is obvious – it gives opposing parties ammunition, which can translate into lost votes. For companies, protests can result in a tarnished brand and consumers jumping ship to a competitor. Avoiding such backlashes in the first place is therefore the best thing to do for both.
Google is in rare company when it comes to this issue, since it has experienced both sides. For much of its relatively short history, the company has stressed "Yes, you can." On the product side, Android and Chrome operating systems are free and largely open for application developers to fiddle with and improve. On the policy level, the company has also lobbied for more openness in telecommunications networks and for freer speech in places such as China. Google also continues to negotiate and sometimes struggle with the entertainment industry to maintain YouTube as a place where people can express themselves in creative ways.
Google has made its share of mistakes, though. When the company launched Google+ last year, it told participants "No, you can't" by banning the use of pseudonyms on the social network. The online community vocally complained, saying that users' needs to be anonymous sometimes trump the company's desire to identify them for search and advertising purposes. Google learned its lesson and in January reversed its pseudonym policy.
For a company that generally doesn't charge for services, brand is everything. Vint Cerf, one of the founding fathers of the Internet and Google's "chief Internet evangelist" (he's also a vice-president), says the Yes-you-can versus No-you-can't dichotomy is therefore at the core of all the company's decisions.
The interplay between the two is still evolving, though, so it's not necessarily a black-and-white issue, he says. While the company makes Android freely available to smartphone makers, for example, wireless carriers are free to modify the operating system and even block apps on devices.
"While we're singing 'Yes, you can,' some of the people who use those platforms are also singing, 'No, you can't.' There's a mixture of these two perspectives showing up in a lot of different places," Mr. Cerf says. "In the case of intellectual property – especially when it's representative in digital form, we have a fundamental, 'Yes I can,' and the other guy is saying, 'Holy crap!' That would make for an interesting variation on this song that we've got these two sides singing."
With copyright becoming the big hot-button issue of the day for the online community, Mr. Cerf says the impetus is growing for all stakeholders – industry, government and users – to get together and decide on a solution that everybody likes. A sort of universal "Yes, you can."
"We're still in a state where the technologists, legislators and intellectual property creators haven't tried to have a dialogue of what can and can't be done in order to protect the interest of the intellectual property creator," he says.
That's why Google has voiced some support for the Online Protection & ENforcement of Digital Trade Act, which was introduced in the House of Representatives in January as an alternative to SOPA. An editable version of the OPEN act has been posted online and encourages user-generated input and amendments in the interest of "building a better bill."
Public relations experts believe this is exactly how positions – whether they're products, services, laws or treaties – need to be created in the Internet age. It's not necessarily the "No, you can't" that upsets people, it's not being included in important decisions that affect them, says Mia Pearson, co-founder of Toronto-based PR agencies High Road and Strategic North, whose clients have included Microsoft, Facebook and Samsung..
"The online community is very open to giving you that feedback and being part of it in advance of a launch. When you do that, they're very supportive," she says.
Placating the online masses is therefore not just a simple case of companies, regulators and governments saying, "Yes, you can." It also requires explaining instances of "No, you can't," and sometimes justifying the position. When Internet users refuse to accept the justification, however, that may be cause to reconsider the position in the first place, otherwise the result will likely be further protest, which means lost votes or customers.
As Ms. Pearson says, it doesn't pay to try and ram your position through. "The world doesn't work that way anymore."
Peter Nowak is a technology journalist, author and blogger. His blog can be found at www.wordsbynowak.com .