Broadband and Communications vs. the Digital Economy

Why Senator Conroy’s mandatory internet filter is the greatest danger that exists to Australia’s internet…

The world wide web is an open-format, mostly unregulated medium, brimming with a heady mix of information, pornography, community, copyrighted material, predators and market-busting paradigm-shattering freedom. And we like it that way.

Some vested interests, however, find this liberating new medium less than enthralling. Where some of us see new opportunities, they see only competition. Where we find freedom to choose, they see ways for their customers to escape their own olipoly. Where some of us encounter a wider range of opinions and information than we’ve ever found through any other medium, the powers that be see new avenues of communication to be either controlled or shut down. Market-busting is a threat to existing markets, and paradigm-shattering is abhorrent to the powers-that-be.

It’s with this background in mind that Senator Conroy and his Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy operate. That’s a grandiose-sounding name with a correspondingly vital portfolio. In the 21st century, broadband, communications and the digital economy are conceivably the most important policy areas for any country to get right. And this is why some recent developments in this area are particularly disquieting.

In recent weeks, it has been announced that Australian free-to-air channels will have their license fees reduced by a combined $A250million. A rationale that has been put forward for this is the transition over coming years to digital television. The free-to-air channels, it is argued, have increasing difficulty in maintaining their viewerships/advertising revenue, in the face of competition from static media (DVDs etc) and commercial (cable or satellite) providers. With the addition of a burgeoning internet market for TV, soon to be turbocharged by Labor’s superfast national broadband network, it is thought that the free-to-air channels need help if they are to continue to create and distribute Australian content.

The push to get Australian TV broadcasters and viewers to switch to digital has any number of positive outcomes. Apart from anything else, it will free up spectrum that the government will then be able to license to new applications, ushering in a new era of mobile broadband over bandwidths currently distributing television. This is a new digital world that I’m excited to be alive to see arrive.

What I’m less sanguine about is Senator Conroy’s intransigent charge to introduce mandatory ISP-level internet filtering to Australia’s online market. Others have cogently argued the many negative outcomes of this piece of legislation and I won’t revisit those here. What I have not seen widely discussed, however, is what seems possibly the most dangerous outcome of the filter, should it go ahead. The danger is that it gives the government a methodology by which it can enforce market control and thus close the liberating doors to the global economy that are swinging wide open at the moment.

Let’s take an example. Say you’re a fan of a US television show – say Lost, for example. Season six is currently screening in the US and episodes become available on iTunes not long after. Season six is slated to begin in Australia on free-to-air television soon, but won’t be available here for purchase for a significant period of time. Currently, you can make an account on iTunes and download the episodes you’re interested in. This is a bad outcome for channel seven, but a good one for you the viewer, a good one for Apple which takes its cut of the sale price, and good for the maker of the show who gets your hard-earned. The only real loser in this scenario is the local TV channel which loses your eyeballs.

The filter gives the government, and through them the free-to-air channels, a way to close this back-channel. Lost season six hasn’t yet been through the OFLC? Block it. If it’s currently not classified, it is therefore not legal to sell within Australia. (Actually, Lost is a poor example as it’s a global property, and it is currently classified for viewing in Australia.)

The banning of sales of Lost might seem a little far-fetched, as the proposed filter can’t selectively block content; it only blocks whole sites. So you can only block Lost by blocking online sites that sell the episodes. Of course, these are the same sites that are also selling (R-rated) Rome and Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Tell Me You Love Me and… Some of these titles may not be able to get into Australia past the OFLC without adjustments. It hardly matters that the same retailer will be selling The Simpsons and Seinfeld. The point is that it it’s not about specific titles, it’s about the channel.

It’s not just television. Movies are currently staggered in release; Australia often receives prints of films for cinema use months or even years after other parts of the world have seen them. Sometimes the movie can be available to own on DVD before it gets onto screens here. Movie studios and cinemas naturally want to prevent Australians from buying and importing the latest Bruce Willis vehicle. Music CDs and print books cost far more in Australia at retail than they do when bought overseas and imported – even including exchange rates and delivery costs. Computer software is regionalised. This is fine – the OFLC has a job to do and the debate about an R-rating for computer games is entirely outside of the scope of this discussion. But if the game in question is not marketed in Australia, it won’t necessarily be seen by the OFLC.

There’s a whole world of media content which is produced in the United States, Europe or Asia, both online and on DVD, and Australian audiences are becoming progressively more knowledgeable and more capable of sourcing this content without it coming through standard Australian retail outlets. It is this burgeoning marketplace that is under threat from mandatory filtering. In a world where US culture is immediate and urgent, where teenagers are downloading episodes of their favourite shows half an hour after they’ve screened on CBS, where the latest Hollywood blockbuster can be on the weekly shelves in US video stores before receiving a cinema release here, this kind of parochialism cannot be acceptable if Australia wants to remain a vital player in world culture.

The control of the international market of media may not be a stated aim of Conroy’s proposed filter. It does not take long, however, for any program or system to be subverted, if such subversion is possible. To me, the mandatory internet filter is just too dangerous to go ahead. The whole point of the digital economy is that it exists without borders. If the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy cannot get to grips with this idea, they are doing the Australian people a disservice. So far, it looks like Senator Conroy is more concerned for the interests of the old economy than the Digital one, and is willing to sacrifice the freedom of Broadband Communications to the altar of commerce.

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