Will the next corporate scandal involve the Internet?
The Financial Times today* suggests that 2012 will be a pivotal year for the media. I think that when we look back in a few years’ time, 2010 will be a tipping point for the Internet too. In retrospect, we will know whether those who currently guard the networks had a public or a private interest at heart.
In 2011, we saw the apparent vindication of the Internet as an enabler of democracy, coupled with a massive growth in Internet traffic, ending the year with a huge spike on Xmas day as people downloaded apps on their new Smartphones. The wider context was one of corporate greed and media despotism, the ever-deepening banking crisis and the exposure of the rottenness in the British media, specifically the Murdoch organisation. Add to that allegations of political corruption, as in Hungary regarding its consitutional changes and Spain regarding Ley Sinde.
Why would one bring these apparently unrelated concepts together in a discussion of Internet policy?
Millions of apps downloaded on smartphones signals a volume increase in mobile traffic not anticipated when the regulations were drawn up. Even when they were amended in 2007-2009, such a change in usage may not have been foreseen by those in charge of making the policy. Other new applications are not far away, which will mean even more traffic, and other new traffic patterns.
Against that traffic increase, we have to consider the blocking demands from an increasing list of stakeholders. Blocking as we know, is not illegal, and is frequently dressed up as a new business model. However, blocking may reflect corruption, censorship, or mere bad behaviour, and is not always in the public interest. At some point the two curves - traffic increase and blocking actions - will coincide, and at that point they will precipitate the communications crunch.
By ‘crunch’ I don’t necessarily mean a mirror of the credit crunch. I don’t actually think that the major telcos will go bust. I think it will take some other form, involving commercial control of network traffic. Before we know it, the opportunities that have brought us to the millions of downloaded apps will have shrunk back to almost nothing. We will slide into it blindly. Political blindess is therefore the issue to address if we want to maintain a health, open and dynamic online environment.
The question is, what should policy-makers do? The absence of regulation and freedom to offer products and services has spurred the growth of both the Internet and the mobile networks. Yet, too weak a regulatory hand will almost certainly lead to a communications crunch. Too strong a hand and it becomes censorship. Self-regulation clearly does not work, especially when there is the temptation to step over the line. Corporations will break the law if they can get away with it. The Murdoch showdown in the British Parliament and the ensuing enquiry by Lord Justice Leveson, reveal just how much so-called self-regulation can go wrong.
How far can T-Mobile, France Telecom, and other European ISPs push the boundaries of ‘legal’ traffic management, before they begin to act illegally? Who will call them to account?
We will have to decide whether the Internet is an open communications network for private, political speech and economic benefit, or whether it is to be reduced to a mass distribution system controlled by the likes of Mr Murdoch (who by the way, would have got his hands on a large section of it, via BSkyB, had Jeremy Hunt got his way and phone-hacking not intercepted the transaction).
The trustworthiness of our regulators merits questioning. For example, Ofcom lobbies in Brussels and attempts to hide its cosiness with industry. Just as with the couple who disappear into the bedroom at a party, everybody knows what is going on. Incidentally, Ofcom is headed by a press officer-turned-banker, on a £200,000-year- salary.
The European Commission has hired Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a man who plagiarised parts of his PhD thesis, and who has previously worked on defence policy, to advise on freedom of expression on the Internet. In Hungary, the Constitutional Court overturned articles in a new Media Law which would have restricted press freedom, but a new Constitution which came into effect this year, supports the current majority government and could reverse that decision. In Spain, US government pressure brought in a very unpopular web blocking law.
Who therefore will keep a check on the regulators, who are currently the only guardians of the open networks? As the networks become more complex, with unforeseen changes in both volume and application, are the regulators up to the job?
And finally, how far do we turn a blind eye to the meretricious behaviour of those in high office that leads to unpopular laws supporting corporate interests?
*Media industry faces a pivotal 2012 by Ben Fenton, Financial Times, 2 January 2012
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