Read part one, Time to go back to first principles on media diversity, here.
While the need for regulating diversity in media via ownership laws has arguably become less pressing as we’ve switched from the old hub-and-spoke media model to a connected media environment, there are other areas of media that merit a response from policymakers — however preoccupied they may be with delivering outcomes for media proprietors.
In a network where everyone can transmit as well as receive, protecting privacy is definitionally a far greater problem than in the analog era. Business models that offer content, convenience or community in exchange for personal information (like many social media platforms) at least have a pretence of consumer control. But many media business models rely on aggregating data from consumers that involves no transaction or permission point. Most users are aware that Facebook is a vast bowel devouring their privacy and excreting ads, but fewer are aware that Google does exactly the same, or that many apps (which users may have paid for) are in effect spyware. Indeed, one of the reasons internet companies have taken so much advertising revenue from traditional media companies is that they can target advertising at consumers based on personal information in a way that mainstream media never could.
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The chief threat to privacy from traditional media companies was against individuals who became the target of purported “public interest” journalism — celebrities, politicians, criminals, members of the public accidentally caught up in major events. The chief threat to privacy from new media is systemic, industrial-scale profiling of every consumer and the potential for misuse of that information, usually by companies that operate beyond the effective reach of Australian laws.
The mere act of collecting such volumes of personal info creates a security threat. Even if the only personal information a media or communications company retains is for billing purposes, that too is highly valuable, as the Turnbull government’s mass surveillance laws demonstrate. Such data is a highly attractive target for malicious actors like intelligence agencies, police forces, organised crime and hackers. And media and communications companies have a history of either accidentally making personal data available or securing it so poorly it can easily be stolen (remember Lulzsec, which operated for a period with the direct complicity of the FBI via their creature Hector Monsegur, hacked Sony and Fox.com).
The shift by major hardware manufacturers and online service providers to offering stronger encryption in the wake of the Snowden revelations and the hostile reaction of governments, right up to Apple’s current battle with the FBI, suggests that governments see this problem from the opposite perspective — that consumers have too much security already and it needs to be curbed. Giving governments the power to access any encrypted system of course will make consumers and businesses less secure and less safe, not merely from governments themselves but from those who can access backdoors created for governments. Governments want to sell this issue as a trade-off between privacy and security, but in reality it’s about more security or less.
In addition to “diversity in control of the more influential broadcasting services”, encouraging broadcasters to provide “a fair and accurate coverage of matters of public interest” is one of the objects the current Broadcasting Services Act. The inclusion of newspapers in media diversity and control laws (via corporations law powers) is a recognition that, even if newspapers aren’t directly regulated by legislation in the same way as traditional broadcasting, they too are important components of our media landscape.
The current regulatory approach to coverage of news and current affairs has two elements: fund national broadcasters (ABC and SBS) that are required to produce high-quality news and current affairs, and impose requirements for news and current affairs on other broadcasters, assuming that they have the financial wherewithal to meet the costs. But both broadcasters and newspapers are now struggling to provide “coverage of matters of public interest” (and have been struggling to fulfill another requirement, of coverage of matters of local significance, for many years).
Departing ABC managing director Mark Scott’s solution, not surprisingly, is for more money to be given to the ABC. There’s actually a strong case for doing this: the ABC (along with SBS) is by far the most trusted media outlet in the country and strongly committed to regional and rural communities through its existing infrastructure. But a stronger ABC in contrast to weaker commercial media also decreases diversity and will hasten that weakening of the latter — News Corp’s incessant hostility to the ABC isn’t merely ideological, it reflects the fact that the ABC routinely beats its outlets across a variety of media.
Access to fair and accurate information isn’t merely a media issue, however. While the empowerment of consumers is an accepted fact, there’s less recognition that the demise of old media gatekeepers has opened the way to new media gatekeepers other than consumers. The algorithms that power so much of the internet and which will power a whole lot more in coming decades are human creations and thus flawed and biased (as this article suggests, try googling images of CEOs, or hands). Google is well known for displaying its own content ahead of content users are actually looking for; Facebook, Google and Twitter all have news aggregation platforms; Snapchat does as well but provides its own news content. There is little transparency in the United States for the mechanisms by which these internet giants will control news feeds, and zero for Australians. Nor, needless to say, are they subject to regulation.
(This is an issue at a more fundamental level, too: the internet and search engines have changed the way we remember, just like writing and print changed the way we remembered; transparency and clarity about how search engines serve up the results we now depend on is an important part of adjusting to a new world of remembering how to regain information rather than remembering information itself).
As more of our media and news content shifts online, the problems of access that beset terrestrial broadcasting are replicated on the internet. Having long struggled to get equivalent broadcasting services, regional and rural communities continue to struggle to get decent broadband services, especially given the debacle of Malcolm Turnbull’s NBN and the failure of the Nationals to protect the interests of their constituents in telecommunications policy. As in the analog and early digital era, infrastructure economics will continue to mean rural communities will have more limited access to content and services — at a time when, after decades of incremental improvements in terrestrial broadcasting infrastructure, that limited access would mean regional and rural communities actually going backwards in terms of services.
Most of these challenges are even more complex than the traditional problem of diversity because the media companies involved are no longer subject to Australian law and don’t even see themselves as media companies in a traditional sense. And, so far, they’re entirely absent from the “debate” about media reforms, as Communications Minister Mitch Fifield prepares to unveil his mogul-friendly package of changes. Australia’s media, traditionally, is poor at conducting any sort of meaningful debate about media regulation because of the vested interests of their owners (that applies to Fairfax as well as News Corp). Likely, given the critically ill condition of much of the media, it will be even worse than usual this time around.