Is It Right to Consider the Internet as Little More Than a Broadcaster?

There is a growing trend to define the internet as little more than a “broadcaster”, but isn’t it a bad thing to start considering the internet little more than just another TV station?

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

Many would argue that the internet has been one of mans greatest inventions, in part, because it gives citizens new-found freedoms and a medium for expression that can be experienced by many people around the world without having to spend billions of dollars to do so. It was all fun and games until legacy businesses and governments from around the world entered the picture.

Since then, major corporate entities and governments have been grappling with many questions surrounding the internet including the question about how one controls the internet. Since there is no real central hub for the internet unless one counts the internet backbones as the internet’s central office (which is still arguably a flawed argument to make in the first place), the idea of controlling the internet had major difficulties making the transition from sounding good on paper to putting it into actual practise.

Recently, there have been a set of cases highlighting a new movement by various governments around the world to legally consider the internet as a “broadcaster” While it has been a rather subtle movement in many cases, the movement does have serious implications.

Recent Cases

Australia

One of the better known cases in recent memory is happening in Australia. Just ask digital rights advocates that reside in that country what has been protested recently. Essentially speaking, the Australian government wants to censor pornography and anything they deem “inappropriate” on the internet. From a Digital Liberty Coalition press release (PDF):

“The problem is not with the concept of protecting children, in fact Senator Conroy has been adamant at dismissing all criticisms of his filter by alluding that the critic clearly has a stash of child porn hidden away,” says Jasmine, one of the national organizers from DLC, “but in the fact it is mandatory, restricts adults to material only suitable for MA15 audiences, and filters out political communication of whatever is deemed ‘hate’ literature by the government in power at the time. There are no checks or balances in place in the legislation to prevent future abuses of this filter to infringe more on the human rights of all Australians.”

Restricting the internet to an MA 15+ medium is very similar to laws surrounding what can be aired on television – MA 15+ is the highest ranking broadcasting can go before it is unlawful to air it.

France

France just recently made a move to put a tax on the internet so that ISPs are forced to contribute just under 1% of all profits to a public television fund. Many are calling the move unconstitutional.

Why Governments Could Have Gotten the Idea that the Internet is a Broadcaster

Calling the internet a broadcaster can easily highlight again why the government has only the foggiest idea of what the internet is even to this day, but there are ways one can draw similarities between a broadcaster and the internet.

One of the major developments that was a part of the network neutrality debate was that ISPs were pushing for IPTV – a way to stream television shows from the ISP to the user for a fee. This was also one of the things that caused major PR damage because while the ISPs were promising to stream live TV over the internet to ISP customers, the ISPs were also saying that bandwidth is severely limited in spite of evidence that proved otherwise. This sparked the criticism that ISPs wanted to turn the internet into either another cable network or a phone package much like other services they offered. It wouldn’t be a surprise if governments actually took the idea and flew with it into pushing new legislation that ISPs wouldn’t like.

Another way to look at the internet may be to just look at YouTube. Many people consider YouTube as a great way for users to create user-generated video’s – streaming the results to the users. Broadcasters also stream content to users – they frequently create the content that is also streamed to the end-user.

Why the Internet is not a Broadcaster

In the many ways that the internet is a broadcaster, there are at least as many, if not, more ways in which the internet is not a broadcaster.

One way in which the internet is most commonly used is e-mail. Users send messages back and forth in the same way people send letters back and forth in the postal service (though some governments are legislating the ability to pry open letters unlike the mail system) The postal service is a far cry from what a broadcaster does.

Another commonly used way the internet is used is to play video games online (like MMORPG’s, first person shooters, casino’s like Full Tilt and the billions of Flash games posted on online gaming websites) often against each other for enhanced playability. The internet can be used as a virtual arcade enjoyed by billions around the world.

It’s hard to talk about the many uses of the internet and not include online chat which has been a staple of the internet since pretty much the beginning. In many ways, the online chatrooms (like IRC) and forums (like ZeroPaid’s vBulletine) can be likened to a phone conference that major businesses have more than likely used on a fairly regular basis. Many of these mediums for communications have been used time and time again like a help desk for various problems like computer related problems (and, by extension, through Google — ‘got a problem? Ask Google’). Again, almost nothing related to a broadcaster.

What about online shopping? One of the most common uses of the internet is internet shopping which even the copyright industry uses to make their billions. If there’s anything that can be credited for having the worlds largest supermarket/garage sale, it would be the internet.

While the copyright industry has no problem labelling the internet as a medium for piracy, the internet is also an anti-piracy mechanism quietly used by the copyright industry. Just ask anyone who has ever had to install and validate software like Windows XP. Similarly, one can say that the internet is an operating system if concepts like cloud computing ever takes off. Additionally, it can be considered an extra hard drive with the advent of online storage.

The internet is also frequently credited for being a source of online information. Wikipedia is the prime example on how the internet is basically an online encyclopedia and source of information. Is a broadcaster like a dusty series of books? That would be extremely hard to argue.

Try getting away with describing the internet like an virtual jukebox or radio station. Online websites like Soundclick and Newgrounds Audio portal for examples provides a massive legal means to listen to music for free through streaming or downloading. Of course, there are millions of others like Last.FM, Jamendo and WinAmp stations, but you get the idea. Like a broadcaster? So close, yet so far.

One can write an entire book on how the internet is not like a broadcaster, so the above should suffice.

Why it’s bad for governments to consider the internet as a broadcaster

Aside from being technologically inaccurate, it is also a politically dangerous way of thinking as well.

It’s bad for politics

The very people thinking of legislating in this manner will find that it’s bad for the political system. In the United States, the last election proved to be one of the most popular. The biggest reason was the fact that political parties were using the internet to spread their message in unprecedented ways. Voter turnout was practically record breaking. Considering the internet as little more than a broadcaster and legislating accordingly would have major negative consequences for all political parties in question.

It’s bad for business

Since we’ve seen some of the ways governments are legislating while looking at the internet as a broadcaster (like blocking anything considered ‘indecent’ or ‘inappropriate’ (Australia) or (as seen in France) tacking on extra taxes), ISPs will be forced to pass these ideas onto customers like through removing access to online content due to political pressure or moving the extra fees onto customers. If the prices rise for lesser content, fewer people will be interested in getting an internet connection. This means less revenue for major ISPs around the world. Less revenue also means less money going into various economies (weakening them) — something world-wide governments should be thinking is the last thing they want to do in the first place.

It’s bad for society

Never has the human race been able to communicate over such wide distances with such ease. This has allowed for an explosion of human knowledge to the point where the real question is, how does one organize all this information? If governments start censoring or taxing the internet, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that this will be a major set-back for the progress of society when that information starts disappearing from their computer screens.

Conclusion

In short, the internet does not need more enemies (The RIAA is still doing a stellar job at filling that role in) and in all practical purposes, the governments in the world should abandon the idea before they cause major harm to what has been, by and large, one of the best inventions humanity has, to date, ever had.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.



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