Removing road blocks on the information highway

President of the European Federation of Magazine Publishers*

©David Rooney

Imagine an information highway that allows all citizens in the world to have unlimited access to unlimited content, from information to entertainment, from news to networking, in all technically possible formats.
Imagine content providers being able to disseminate high-quality content based on sustainable business models and regulatory regimes that guarantee certainty without hindering the sprouting development of the online world.The benefits may seem obvious for magazines as they extend large parts of their well known and trusted brands to the Internet. However, in reality there are many road blocks on the ever-expanding information highway which serve only as burdens, slowing down the massive potential of this unique and limitless medium in Europe.Periodical press publishers, like many other content providers, consider themselves as an essential pillar in a democratic society, a vital contributor to the open forum. The diversity of the media, the variety of viewpoints, the coverage of topics at different levels and styles, related specifically to the varying audiences, contribute significantly to the sustainability of a free and democratic information society. As such the information highway, along with the print medium, plays a key role in providing citizens with every conceivable kind of information, allowing them to inform themselves in a timely manner, to remain critical and involved so as to feed the democratic debate in the 21st century.Magazine publishers are proactive players in this environment and shape the media landscape online and offline: providing content for all platforms (print, online, mobile, audio-visual) with continuously evolving business models. They extend brands and link the offline and online communities. They also contribute to the development of the information highway by creatively linking user-generated content with professional journalistic content.But content providers face many, sometimes insurmountable, road blocks–dependent in some instances simply on their location–that slow down developments and put European media at a disadvantage on the global stage. In Europe these road blocks are often in the form of technological constraints, societal expectations vis à vis existing business models and regulatory approaches that do not always allow for the free flow of information that is required to keep up with the dynamics and creativity required for the information highway.Toll free for everyone
Modern web technology changes and shapes the media landscape at a breathtaking pace. But the effectiveness of a true information highway in the 21st century depends strongly on the levels at which individuals can access the Internet. Broadband Internet access is the five-lane highway that enables the provision of enormous quantities of content and, equally important, in many different and ever evolving formats, including audio-visual. So as long as the penetration of broadband remains unacceptably low, the use of moving pictures and sound will be limited, thus depriving both the consumer and the media owner. It is this level of technical competence that should be the norm for the information highway in Europe today.As broadband penetration in the EU varies from 30% in some northern countries to below 10% in the Balkan countries, content providers remain severely limited in the offerings that they can make to media-competent consumers. They cannot use all the technological possibilities to present the full potential of their content if they want to reach as many people as possible.Cost to the consumer is also a limiting factor, as in many countries Internet access is for many citizens unreasonably expensive.It is surely the role of the state to remove these road blocks and ensure low-cost, if not free, high-speed Internet access? Only when the whole range of content-formats that is technologically possible can be accessed by all citizens can the information society be fully utilised. In particular the young generation that is growing up with the Internet as its primary source of information deserves these services.More potholes
As the consumers of media over the last 15 years have come to expect the Internet as a source of free general information, many attempts to develop business models that are based on paid content have not met success. 99% of content providers of general consumer content, like news, entertainment and general knowledge, therefore have to finance the offering through advertising. It is mainly content providers for business-to-business information, for professionals, which have managed to develop successful paid-for-content business models that do not depend entirely on advertising revenues.In Europe, the information highway is suffering further from an increasing number of politically motivated potholes that are undermining the overall aim of content providers, such as advertising restrictions and bans that decrease the one and only revenue stream for most content providers online. Another current debate in the EU has the potential to close down 4 of the 5 lanes specific to the information highway as it ignores how online advertising works for both the provider and the consumer. Advertising on the Internet is only effective as long as the advertiser can identify and target its potential customers. With the help of “cookies” this information can be gained for targeted advertising, which potentially limits messages to those that are relevant, a factor usually greeted by online users. Banning cookies for data protection reasons is probably the biggest threat for the information society, and not needed as the advertising industry already has codes of conduct in place about the usage of such data in compliance with existing data protection rules in the EU.Finally, the business model of content providers is built with safe and stable safety fences on both sides of the information highway: existing copyright legislation in the EU protects the creator of content from misuse of any kind of content. The rules are in place and publishers urge politicians to not only maintain them, but to make sure they are enforced globally.It is impossible to regulate the information highway. Over the last years, all players involved in the construction of the information highway witnessed the relentless development of the online media in unexpected and unimagined ways. This will doubtless continue even faster in the future provided it is not hampered by unnecessary and undue excessive interference. Policies should aim to set the framework for free communication within an environment of certainty, but there is a danger that legislative decisions will continuously limit the development of the market.Excessive concerns regarding consumer protection, in particular protection of minors and minorities, as well as the desire to be able to ban content that can be considered as a security threat for the society, have motivated politicians in the EU to come up with over-limiting restrictions for the online world that have their origins in “old world” broadcast regulation.The danger is that due to the fast development of the technology, regulatory frameworks can only be outdated the moment they are implemented. They do not therefore give content providers the legal certainty they need, but create instead even more road blocks to the unhindered development of consumer usage of the information highway.Publishers therefore call for flexible, self-regulatory regimes that correspond to the pace of the development of the online world. Market forces in unison with self-regulation, have the capability to keep in touch with the fast developments of the information highway. Already today, content providers have advertising self-regulation in place.Under construction
This exciting project of continuing the construction and development of the information highway that serves a pluralistic democratic society is stimulating for millions of people around the world. It is not only the periodical press that contributes to this evolution, but all media as well as the individual citizens that act as content providers.As the information highway is still under construction and most likely will always be under construction, governments should try to support the dynamics and creativity of this process rather than slow them down. The fact is that the development will continue: states that try to intervene by implementing restrictive rules and standards will lose in an area where global competition is probably stronger than in any other field. But states that help to encourage self-regulatory regimes that allow the market to develop freely and keep the creative sectors and content providers on the fast lane rather than on the hard shoulder, will, along with their citizens, reap the full potential of this exciting medium.*David Hanger is FAEP President since January 2006. Mr Hanger recently stepped down as Board Director and Publisher of The Economist, having taken the circulation through the one million mark.©OECD Observer No 268 June 2008

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