The challenge of connecting ownership and content in an age of television on the Internet

I’ve been hearing more and more calls for a progressive framework for fighting indecency. This task will be more challenging in an era of TV on the Internet.

The government-directed, censorship-based approach moves us away from our goal of community-defined media. And it won’t work to pretend like there is no such thing as offensive content.

A recent article in The New Yorker on the spate of shootings in front of the Emmis Communications office put the blame on hip hop. There are plenty of reasons to take the writer to task, as other bloggers have done; New Yorker authors are more at home among the Pashtun than African Americans. I bring it up to say that this blame-the-individual approach is exactly what we were trying to avoid when we put out the No Hate Radio call, but it’s exactly what we’ll get if we don’t connect bad corporate content with bad corporate ownership.

On the Australian “Big Brother” show, which is broadcast 24/7 on the Internet when not airing on television, two men sexually assaulted a woman on the show. One man reportedly held the woman down while the other man rubbed his groin in her face. Though the men were booted, it seems like this is only slightly further than the show normally goes.

This strikes me as another example of the corporate media using violent sexism to gain attention. The response from the conservative government there has been to call for the show’s removal from television, even though the incident was broadcast on the Internet.

As broadcasters increasingly use it to distribute video, the Internet may become a place of greater regulation, with more restrictions on content. Without a connection between content and ownership, the burden of meeting that regulation could quash user-generated and community-based content. (Despite the knee-jerk perception that large corporations always want to de-regulate, they often favor complex regulations as a barrier to entry when faced with small-time competitors.)

That sort of regulation is in fact being proposed in Europe right now. As part of the EU’s “TV without frontiers” directive, the European Commission has suggested it would standardize regulation across all media for TV and “TV-like services.” (Check out the directive [pdf] and the accompanying press release. Read commentary with plenty of links from 463, which also tipped me off to the Aussie Big Brother brouhaha, and a summary from the free marketeers at the Progress and Freedom Foundation.)

In the US, the FCC already restricts the promotion of websites during children’s programming based on the commercial content of the sites (sales or advertising). That kind of direct connection between a broadcast TV show and web content makes sense to me, even if it’s not the kind of community accountability I would prefer.

However, it will get a lot more difficult to make that connection as the lines separating television and Internet and cell phones disappear. It’s one thing for the government to assert authority over your content if you’re using public airwaves or even rights of way; it’s another if you are just another video service provider on the Internet. (Remember, the open Internet is about having a level playing field among producers and disconnecting ownership of infrastructure from ownership of content.)

There is a wide open space on the other side of this technological revolution. That’s why we need to develop our own framework for content-regulation that meshes with our values and goals.

One approach that I know is wrong is combing air tapes for dirty words, which I recently learned the FCC has begun doing (thanks, Nan!). They’re going over sports broadcasts listening for curse words from enthusiastic fans. That’s just more random censorship.

It’s also a step towards ending live broadcasts. Interestingly, the EU directive seems to distinguish between “linear” and “non-linear” television, which could have the same effect. New regulations in Venezuela are also chilling live broadcasts. That’s not the future I want.

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