Page last updated at 09:36 GMT, Wednesday, 1 October 2008 10:36 UK

The medium and the message

Marconi TV camera, BBC
TV has changed a lot but the net is something very different, says Bill

Hobbling the internet to keep television safe is a bad idea, says Bill Thompson

There are often moments during the widespread adoption of transformative technologies where an old way of thinking or doing business is so threatened by the new possibilities that its adherents call on those with political power to "Do Something!"

It never works.

If the music industry had spent more time thinking of ways to deliver great music to its customers over the internet and less lobbying politicians and suing potential customers it would probably be thriving by now.

Book publishers, less certain of their own importance, are taking notice of the exciting experiments at Faber & Faber and Penguin instead of looking for protectionist legislation to keep the new media world at bay.

Regulation redux

And for a while it looked like television was keen to embrace the possibilities for online delivery and greater engagement that the network offered.

Yet now it seems that Culture Secretary Andy Burnham thinks television in the UK is so special that it needs to be kept safe from attack by the nasty people of the online world.

Apparently it is time to "even up" regulation between the internet and television because those producing online material get an easy ride.

Mr Burnham's comments were made during a discussion session after a speech he gave to the Royal Television Society. The speech itself is measured, careful and well-judged, at least according to the text posted on the DCMS website.

Bill Thompson
The internet is not a medium, and cannot be regulated as one.
Bill Thompson
In it he argues that fear of the internet has "taken hold in some places", and that "it would appear that TV has at times lost confidence" when faced with what he calls the "online challenge", suggesting that "TV is in danger of ceding to the internet as the place where new talent is found".

This was probably written by someone in his department who understands what the internet is and what it offers and who is aware of the vast tranches of legislation and regulation that affect those offering content.

But in his comments Mr Burnham revealed a desire to apply "taste and decency" standards to online content and to "tighten up" online regulation, and these unscripted remarks are very revealing and very troubling.

Even if we discount that fact that he was speaking to a TV audience and would naturally try to cheer them up, it is hard to reconcile his comments with the often-stated views of the media regulator Ofcom that TV-style regulation is both undesirable and unworkable online.

This is not an easy time to work in television.

Audiences are fragmenting, the review of Public Sector Broadcasting is taking an age, and of course TV advertising revenue is likely to plunge faster than the Dow Jones index in the current crisis.

Any anticipated income from adverts for loans and mortgages should certainly be deleted from the spreadsheet.

But suggesting that you can impose the same sort of quality threshold on as you do on ITV1 is absurd and assumes an equivalence between the two that is simply absent.

Walled off

Television is a medium, a way of using radio waves or another transmission mechanism to get moving pictures and synchronised audio onto millions of screens simultaneously. It does what it does very well, but it only does that one thing.

The internet is not a medium, and cannot be regulated as one.

It is a network, a series of connected computers that can share binary data and use that data for a variety of purposes.

Some of those purposes, like streaming video, bear a passing resemblance to television but many do not. Some of those purposes, like the exchange of instant messages, are private communications and some are not.

We are still only at the beginning of the process of finding ways to use this network, for good or evil, for free or for money, for all or for some. Some of its uses can and should be carefully controlled, others cannot.

Websites with embedded video are not mini television channels, however much the minister might believe they are, and they cannot be controlled like television.

Screengrab of iPlayer homepage, BBC
The net is changing the way many keep up with TV shows
But Andy Burnham would like to hobble online video in order to protect the interests of the broadcasters, just in case they come up with some imaginative programme formats to compare with the wonder of "Who Do You Think You Are?", a recent BBC success that he mentioned as an example of what to aspire to.

He apparently thinks that governments have not gone far enough in controlling the medium, that they have accepted the idea that the internet is "beyond legal reach", a "space where governments can't go".

Perhaps he hasn't had time to be briefed on the Protection of Children Act, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the Data Protection Act or the many and varied activities of regulatory agencies like the Internet Watch Foundation.

But he has certainly heard of Ofcom, he can't have missed the launch last week of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS), and he himself told the Daily Mail of plans to introduce "tough new rules to make websites carry age certificates and warning signs on films featuring sex, violence or strong language".

The foolishness over how we manage online video does not stop there. At the moment one of the few serious experiments in reinventing television for the online world, the Kangaroo joint venture between BBC Worldwide, ITV and Channel 4, is being subjected to a competition commission investigation because it might dominate the market for online programming.

Meanwhile anyone with a technological bent can download whole series of US programmes via BitTorrent or buy them from Apple, Sony or Microsoft.

We could easily find ourselves in a situation where anyone in the UK who wants to use the net creatively has to use an offshore server to host their content and then tell their friends about how to access it using a proxy server that gets around Mr Burnham's proposed legislation.

Fortunately we know how to do that, because political dissidents in China perfected the techniques in order to bypass the Great Firewall. It would be a tragedy if an ill-informed Culture Secretary puts us in the same situation.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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