Facebook and the Printing Press

A recent article in the New Zealand Herald cites historian Niall Ferguson as drawing comparisons between the early days of the printing press and the current free wheeling Digital Paradigm. The argument is that we should learn from the lessons of history

There is no comparison between the technologies.

To suggest that the printing press enjoyed the “permissionless innovation” afforded by internet and digital technologies ignores that fact that in England the press was under the control of the Stationers Guild (later Company after 1556) who licensed what printers could print and kept a very close eye on what printers did. Indeed, their control was such that only the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge were the sites of presses outside of London.
Then there was state regulation of printing that took a number of forms. The Royal Stationer – later the Royal Printer – was responsible for printing the King’s view on things – statutes, proclamations and other such. Thomas Cromwell used the press to great effect during the English Reformation. It was he who used preambles in Statutes to identify the “mischief” that the statute was intended to remedy.
After the incorporation of the Stationers (during the reign of Mary I) it was anticipated that the Company would aid the State using its newly granted search powers to root out the printers of heretical tracts. However the power was deployed to root out unlicensed printers who were not members of the Stationers.
There were also many other efforts by the State to regulate content, some more successful than others. The Star Chamber Decrees of 1587 and 1634 were rather dramatic examples. The Decrees were in fact judgments of the Court in cases involving printing disputes.
Just prior to the Civil War that power of Star Chamber was nullified and printers enjoyed considerable freedom and lack of regulation but it did not last once Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans gathered strength.
After the Restoration there was significant regulation both of printers and the content of the Press by means of Licensing Acts the first of which was in 1662 and which was renewed regularly thereafter until 1694. Charles II’s enforcer as far as print was concerned was a phanatick (to use the spelling adopted by Neal Stephenson in his Baroque Quartet) by the name of Roger L’Estrange – a very nasty piece of work both by the standards of his time and ours.
In 1694 the Licensing Acts came to an end, primarily as a result of political strife within a greater context, and until 1710 there was a lack of restriction on printing. This all changed when the focus moved from the printer to the author who should have control of content and the Statute of Anne was the first Copyright Act.
So to say that there is a parallel between Silicon Valley’s freedom to develop platforms and bolt them on to the Internet and the early history of the printing press is wrong. Indeed, the whole structure of the communications technologies is different. The printing press was the technology and essentially books, magazines, pamphlets and papers were the medium. Today the Internet is the communications technology and Facebook, Twitter, blogs etc etc are platforms bolted on to it. The absence of red tape (what I call permissionless innovation) is what has enabled the growth of the Internet and the proliferation of platforms.
The call is for regulation, but regulation of what. Better to have a regulatory plan in place that we can discuss rather than disembodied pleas to “do something”. Perhaps we could turn to history but I think we have moved on from the semi-absolutist model of the Tudors and Stuarts.
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