Posts Tagged ‘digital intermediaries’

Rise of the Prime Time Internet vs the Death of Television

I often write about the Internet and its place in the broader network media ecology in relation to three things:

  1. That core elements of the network media ecology are becoming more concentrated: e.g. ISPs, search engines, social networking sites, browsers, operating systems, traditional media;
  2. Efforts to turn ISPs and other digital intermediaries into copyright police, as some have pushed to have done through the Copyright Modernization Act (Bill C-11) now in third reading before Parliament;
  3. Efforts to make those same digital intermediaries into agents of state, national security and law enforcement agencies, such as the Child Online Predators Act (Bill C-30) that was recently yanked by the Harper Government after an outpouring of public protest and one of Rick Mercer’s rants.

An underlying idea behind these points is that online gate-keepers are being created and the Internet generally being recast in the image of older models of the ‘industrial media’ set down in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, however, I want to write about something else: the rise of the “Prime Time Internet” that looks and feels a lot like the ‘old model’ of television.

Preposterous you say? You’re not alone.

Commentators have been declaring television to be in terminal decline for the last decade-and-a-half. Indeed, so popular is this belief that a Google search of “death of television” turns up 957 million hits.  The death of television, however, is much exaggerated and probably just wrong.

Television viewing is not declining. Instead, in all but two of the countries surveyed in the International Communications Monitoring Report by the UK communications and media regulator, Ofcom, it has been increasing, including: Canada, the U.S., the UK, France, Sweden, Australia, Italy, Spain, Italy, Germany and a few others (p. 146).

Furthermore, for the most part, the economics of television are strong, as I’ve shown elsewhere. Revenues have not shrunk for television channels or distribution platforms (e.g. cable, satellite, IPTV). In fact, they have expanded significantly, in Canada, the US and worldwide. In China, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey, India, and a few other countries with fast growing economies the development of television has entered a golden age.

All those who talk of a new generation of digital natives dumping television in favour of their smart phones, Facebook, laptops, Internet, and so forth might be startled to discover that the “consumption of television by teens has stubbornly continued to grow”. In “Why the Internet Won’t Kill TV”, Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. senior analyst Todd Juenger writes, “so far teens are following historical patterns, and in fact, their usage of traditional TV is increasing”.

As Juenger notes, of course, young people use mobile devices and computers to do so, but these devices “are in addition to television.”  More generally, while online video is being downloaded to an ever more diverse range of mobile devices, increasingly the conventional television screen is the final destination.

The Internet is also increasingly being used more like television in other ways.  For one, people download far more information than they upload. In sum, despite all the user-generated content unleashed over the past decade, and the real potential for widely dispersed social interaction and communication, we still communicate mostly with those we know, while remaining primarily net consumers of information.

According to Internet-equipment makers such as Sandvine and Cisco, “Real-time entertainment” services now account for more than half of all Internet traffic at peak time in North America and the Asia-Pacific region (e.g. Netflix, Hulu, NCAA, YouTube, Google Video, Spotify, BBC iPlayer, Pandora, Rdio). The numbers are less for mobile Internet access but still substantial and growing fast: one-third of mobile traffic in North America and roughly forty percent in Asia-Pacific consists of entertainment-type audio-visual services.

Online video is not just the biggest source of traffic during peak hours but those hours coincide with the same “prime time hours” between 8–11 pm that have defined the television audience for decades. In short, the ‘prime-time Internet’ has a lot in common with the ‘old tv’ model, with television programs, online video and the classic prime time hours playing starring roles in the phenomenon. The two figures below show the trend for North America and the Asia-Pacific region.

Figure 1: The Prime-Time Internet in North America


Source: Sandvine, 2011, p. 5.


Figure 2: The Prime Time Internet in the Asia-Pacific Region

Source: Sandvine, 2011, p. 15.

More than just chronicling the greater role of online entertainment, however, the rise of the ‘prime-time Internet’ poses significant challenges to claims that network public sphere that we now associate with the Internet marks a vast improvement over the standards of communication, social connectedness and democratic participation set by the industrial media of the past.

Yochai Benkler (2006) makes exactly such claims in The Wealth of Networks:

“A substantial body of empirical literature suggests. . . that we are in fact using the Internet . . . at the expense of television, and that this exchange is a good one from the perspective of social ties . . . .  [I]n addition to strengthening our strong bonds, we are also increasing the range and diversity of weaker connections” (p. 15).

While I often draw on Benkler’s work and find myself in agreement with it far more often than not, the evidence recounted above suggests that his first claim about watching television less to use the Internet more is not correct. Internet use does not displace but complements television viewing.

More importantly, though, does the idea of the ‘prime-time Internet’ call into question all of the other benefits of tighter social bonds, reinvigorated citizen journalism, higher levels of political and community engagement, and an improved network public sphere that Benkler and others in far less qualified ways claim (e.g. see here and here)?

I do not think that we need to see this as a zero-sum game, where our pursuits of pleasure and entertainment comes at the expense of these other things. However, the rise of the prime-time Internet does demand at least a scaling down of the more hyperbolic views that the internet, by displacing television and other ‘mass media, has served fundamentally to refortify the atrophying social connections and to revive the possibilities for greater participation in social and political life that are essential to a decent democratic society.

Sure, the creative commons is being fortified with user-created content, citizen journalism is probably helping to improve the quality of journalism against a deep-seated backdrop of failures and woes, and the more connected online we are the more likely we will be connected to others around us in ‘real life’. For all those who see the Internet as a democratizing force and as having unleashed people’s inner political beast, however, the rise of the real-time Internet suggests that kicking back, goofing off and being entertained is still the centre of the media universe for a whole lot of people.

The Copyright Modernization Act (C-11), Digital Locks and turning ISPs into Gatekeepers One Step at a Time

For the fourth time in six years, new copyright legislation was introduced last month and debated in Parliament this week.  The proposed new Copyright Modernization Act (Bill C-11) is a word-for-word rendition of the last bill that died when the election was called, except for a few important tweaks (see below).

The bill, in fact, has much to commend it. It holds the line steady on the length of copyright protection at the lifetime of the author plus fifty years, rather than wildly extending it for up to 150 years, as in the United States.

It also recognizes new user rights, including the ability to swap content we already own across the devices we use, such as smartphones, tv screens, computers, tablets, and so on. So, yes, according to C – 11, take the music or episode of The Wire you bought online and burn a copy to watch on your telly. People can also copy legally-owned content for their own personal, non-commercial use, and for safe-keeping (section 29).

The most cutting-edge innovation is the nod given to the do-it-yourself culture of mass expression. People will be able to rip, mix and burn snippets of media content in order to create their own non-commercial parodies, satire, mash-ups, and Youtube clips.

The biggest problem is that these new rights are trumped by the sanctity given to digital locks in Bill C-11. Sure, do all of the things the new law permits until your heart’s content, but only if you do “not circumvent . . . a technological protection measure”. TPMs are inviolate, as the entirety of section 42 makes painstakingly clear.

This is the triumph of technology and contracts over human will and communication rights. Critics are right to single it out. It is hard to imagine the bill being salvageable without this ordering of things being seriously revamped.

That the Conservatives have consulted closely, and secretively, with Washington to design this bill is also problematic (see here and here). The book-burning clause requiring students to destroy copyright-protected, online components of course they take thirty days after receiving their final grade is plain dumb (section 30(5)).

Yet, there is another feature that needs higher billing than it has so far received: Notice and Notice rules that will require all ISPs to pass on notices from copyright holders to subscribers alleged to be illicitly downloading and sharing copyright protected content online. ISPs will also be required to retain records for six months that allow the identity of the subscriber to be established and disclosed if things end up in court (sec. 41.26b).

The requirement to retain subscriber information is new. The notice and notice regime, however, is not. Telus, for instance, already forwards 75,000 notices every month on behalf of copyright claimants on average.

In fact, all major Canadian ISPs – Bell, Shaw, Rogers, Quebercor (QMI), Telus and Cogeco – voluntarily agreed with the recorded music industry a decade ago to perform such a function — for free. Such a role is hidden in plain sight in each of their Terms of Service agreements (see here and here).

The publishing, software and movie industries have been the most frequent users of the voluntary notice-and-notice regime in recent years, while the recorded music industries have moved on to pursue a more ambitions agenda since 2008: new laws that require digital intermediaries – ISPs, search companies (Google), data centres — to block access to blacklisted URLs and, for ISPs to take the drastic step of cutting off the Internet connections of repeat infringers.

These approaches are known as the “graduated response” and “three-strikes” regimes. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI), working in tandem with their local offshoots, have been remarkably successful in having them translated into real-world laws in one country after another: Australia, Britain, France, Ireland, New Zealand and Taiwan, amongst others.

This agenda has not yet succeeded in the United States, however, although the push to make it so is relentless.  The terrain is not terra nulles, however, and all of the biggest U.S. ISPs – Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner, Cablevision, etc. – signed a deal last summer with the big four music companies (EMI, Sony, Universal, Warner Bros.) and Hollywood studios (Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, News Corp., Universal, Sony) that will see them take on the notice and notice procedures and possibly some additional measures voluntarily.

The agreement is colloquially known as the “six-strikes-and-we’ll-see” approach because the higher level deterrents are seldomly used. Nonetheless, some worry that the push will be to steadily ratchet the levels of control enacted by ISPs to ever-higher levels.

The notice and notice regime contemplated by the Copyright Modernization Act is stricter than the approach arrived at in the United States. However, it is far less punitive than the “three strikes” and “graduated response” measures adopted by France, the UK, New Zealand and Ireland, among others, in recent years.

The Conservative Government’s decision to reject the three-strikes approach delivers a clear set-back to the recorded music industries’ policy agenda. More importantly, however, it comports well with a recent UN Internet & Human Rights report that emphatically states that “cutting-off users from Internet access . . . on the grounds of violating intellectual property rights law . . . is disproportionate and . . .a violation of . . . the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (p. 21).

Nonetheless, C-11 is problematic insofar that it takes a voluntary deal cooperatively arrived at among Canada’s incumbent telecom and cable companies and applies it to the rest of the 400-500 smaller ISPs that exist in the nooks and crannies of the Canadian ISP market. The new law will force small ISPs to assume roles that most have rejected, and which some oppose on privacy, information rights, and freedom of expression grounds.

Second, the new bill mandates that all ISPs retain data for six months and to disclose the identity of Internet subscribers under court order. This is a new element introduced by the legislation over and above the current voluntary arrangements. For those who believe that the goal should be to minimize, rather to increase, the collection and retention of subscriber data, this is problematic.

Third, as the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Take-Down Hall of Shame in the U.S. illustrate, copyright claimants frequently launch claims based on broader assertions than the law permits. Removing the hurdle of a court order essentially permits copyright claimants to take a shotgun approach that captures far more than what it legally required. The chilling effect on free expression is considerable since many people stop whatever they were doing when sent a notice of alleged copyright infringement rather than wander on to uncertain terrain.

Because copyright holders groups strongly oppose the suite of user rights outlined above – to make back-up copies, create User Generated Content (UGC), swap content across devices, etc. –  they will work very hard to have these rights defined as narrowly as possible. A legally mandated notice and notice regime will serve them well.

C-11 will not turn ISPs and other digital intermediaries into gatekeepers on its own. Translating the voluntary agreements that Canada’s biggest vertically-integrated telecom-media-Internet conglomerates — Bell, Shaw, Rogers, QMI, Cogeco — have made with the music industries into the law of the land, however, will only tilt the bias further yet toward a more net-centric model of control. Extending these methods — plus new data retention and disclosure mechanisms — to all ISPs will compound the problem.

The dominant  telecom-media-Internet players have already demonstrated their capacity to discriminate in favour of their own content and services. In addition, their use of DPI (deep-packet inspection) technologies is already very high relative to global standards (see here). I see no reason to give either them or the copyright holders groups yet even more incentives that will only bolster their pursuit of network-centric models of control and perpetual copyright.

Seen in this context, digital locks are important but the possibility that notice and notice will become the law of the land deserves far more scrutiny than it has thus far seen.

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