(Paper presented at the Regulators Conference "Internet and the New Services" , Paris, 30/11 - 01/12/99)
Let me take you back to the future for a short while. It is only about ten years ago – or even less – that we discovered a new world. A virtual one, with endless possibilities and challenges to change our real world. It was like the discovery of a new continent, like America centuries ago. It was a virtual, non exploited continent. Empty, but ready to be cultivated. And as on bare land we need infrastructure, architecture, people, knowledge, technology and all kind of services to build a new country. Increasing computer productivity and the linking of computers in networks is speeding up the development of this new world. Information society is coming into shape.
But we are only at a first stage in using the possibilities of the new virtual world. Only certain developed countries of the real world entered the virtual one and between those countries there are much differences in activities. The countries that can’t hesitate to become leading ICT or information-societies are challenged with numerous frictions and problems. Scarcity in the capacity of telecom networks, still vital for the flow of information. The implementation of the digital switch. A shortage of specialists and ICT personnel. Technical problems. Uncertainty of standards and compatibility. Civilians, consumers and a labour force that has to be educated to work with and use new electronic hardware and service. And above all these countries have to create constantly. New services and new content.
So it is important to consider that access to the next stage of the development of society, to new services, is not a question of being connected to Internet, of universal access only. It is building a new world. And it will take immense investments to get there.
In The Netherlands this year government published an integrated plan for the ongoing transformation of Dutch society into an information on knowledge society. It is called The Digital Delta. And the ambition is to compete in the ranking of the top ten countries in the information society index. Together with countries like Singapore, Norway, Sweden and for instance Australia who are all presented here. This plan for a digital delta has five pillars:
In a way Holland is creating a new virtual society, less geographically bonded and with open borders but with its own infrastructure, skills, firms and house holds, services. And that is an important notice.
The fact that we have a global communication structure is indifferent to the question if we will be able to preserve cultural, social or economic diversity. The net gives us possibilities to become world citizens as did the sea, roads, trains and plains. The net will make it easier to trade, produce and communicate. It will as well give us the opportunity to recreate our existing societies, our cultural heritage our own identity. The first step in the development of the global communication network was creating global services: it started as an defence network, it is used for flash financing, multinational commerce, global entertainment.
The next step can and probably will be creating national or regional (or European) communities within the global network.
As Internet will grow and develop more and more to become a mass-communication-network (which it is not yet) the mass will not travel around the world. People want to feel home. They want regional or national services, national service providers, regional content. In The Netherlands at this time about 3 million households are connected to the net and about a million got free by Dutch service providers over the last few months.
They want to be guided in their own language, have their own search machines. They want their own stores, banks, stars and celebrities on the net. I estimate that in a well developed information society 80 or 90 percent of the communication and services for the public will be domestic or national. It will be relatively closed circuits.
So there is little reason to be afraid of losing cultural diversity or Anglo American (or in 25 years may be Chinese) domination. At least if we are willing to invest in the new technologies to create not only a new virtual global market but also a national private and public domain.
This domain should not only exist of new government services - though the gap between citizens and politicians might be bridged a bit with new electronic communication - education, medical and social services. The traditional media will have an enormous responsibility in producing and creating new content, new access, new interactive programmes om information, cultur and entertainment that suit the interes of consumers and society.
Especially if television integrates with the web and WebTV becomes the portal to radio/TV/film and electronic services, they can play a vital role. There will be more competition. With cable operators that offer Pay TV and services via decoders, on satellite and with service providers on the net. But they have to be able to compete.
Most countries hesitate to have public broadcasters play a role in the new information society. It is almost that they have to stick to their traditional business. For broadcasters we have media legislation. Internet is telecommunications, wich means no entrance. In the Netherlands public broadcasters were not invited at the platform for discussions on the electronic highway. Very little is said about their role in the digital delta report.
To me this seems a wrong strategy. Public broadcasters should not only be present on the electronic communication network, they should have the possibility to transfer to Internet service providers as well. Preferable in a public construction, may be with private partners. The task will remain a public one though: producing and distributing a diversity of programmes and services which reflect society. Being a platform and stage for exchange of ideas. Guiding people, giving meaning to information. Leading then to the interesting places on the net.
If you can’t or won’t control or regulate the world, as many of us conclude here today, you need a strong public domain in a chaotic flow of information.
As Michael J. Wolf describes in his book ‘The entertainment economy’ all business will become content - especially entertainment - providers themselves. And as a Dutch ITC consultant explained enthusiastic a few weeks ago: on Internet at last there will be no distinction between advertisers and editors. Governments and politicians on the other hand look forward to the possibility of reaching their voters directly without nasty journalists asking questions.
This can’t be the freedom of expression we advocate. So some regulation might be needed to guard the quality of the information. Since the main flow of information and services will be regional or national, regulation or co-regulation will be less problematic then some of the speakers brought forward. The main players on the field of information will change, but will be very clearly apparent.
The main field of regulation in new information societies will be the traditional field: to secure production and distribution of information in the broadest sense, independent of commercial or state influence. That is what freedom of expression is all about. And that shouldn’t lack in information society. Thus in our reaction to the questions posed by the CSA for this conference we suggested the following:
- To stimulate innovation, competition and investments in the communication infrastructure.
- To develop technological knowledge, research and development, strong ITC clusters and education of the labour force and the youth.
- To stimulate the access and use of new information networks and services for civilians and commerce.
- To apply general legislation for the information society according to the principle that there should be no difference in legislation ‘on line and off line’.
- Building a new presence of government in the information society. Better information about policies, rules and regulation, new services and openness to the public.
A last point of regulation might be rules on access. As service providers or electronic program guides will be the new gatekeepers to services and programmes we might think of must carry rules for specific public sites or programmes. So that the public will always be able to choose for non-commercial entrance.
At this moment diversity too often means more of the same and more choice means paying more often for the same things. For real diversity in content and services we shouldn’t thrust the market completely. They have to earn back all investments and to make sure there will be return on venture capital invested at least one day. So we also have to invest in the information society for public interest. Not on global scale, but on national scale. So that in the virtual world, just as in the real one, next to the market we will have a church and a cinema, a theatre and a sports club. Internet is just like real life.
- Open the Internet for public broadcasters – with their own domain or even as service providers but with the same public responsibilities and tasks.
- Oblige commercial broadcasters that enter Internet or serve as an intermediate to Internet sites to adapt certain rules of the Media act to their internet activities: clear distinction between editorial and commercial messages for instance.
- Seek for forms of self regulation with the main players in the internet information field. Service providers for instance should take part in self-regulation on protection of minors.