The Law of Web TV

Internet policy is hard to enforce, but there is no harm in thinking it through. On the other hand, whatever order there is in the Net is generally the result of focussed self-organization: namely that the elements that constitute the medium, technology, market, infrastructure, policy and consumers, fall into place rather quickly and often better than expected.

The focus comes from recognizing and applying best practice rather than on imposing "law and order". That being said, there may be a kind of "natural law of TV" which is rewritten by the predictable development of "Web-TV":

   1. TV is a collective form of consciousness, one of the best the world has ever known;
   2. TV is not meant to be interactive (however, it can handle interactivity, albeit rather clumsily);
   3. "Everybody a broadcaster" has become a truism. Posting anything on line combines the merits of broadcasting with the targeted pertinence of a private conversation;
   4. TV creates its own large-scale communities not by encouraging interpersonal dialogues but by providing common references and common values (even specialty channels suggest a trend to refining and specifying common values for "critical communities");
   5. TV is necessary to local as well as global cohesion so the medium needs protection.

WebTV (or whatever name the genre will eventually go by) bears much more evidence of TV's maturation as a medium than either HDTV or digital TV. Indeed, digitization affects all media to homogenize their substance and allow convergence. TV is no exception. Digitization swallows all contents and supports today, the way literacy and the press did before. High Definition is not TV's, but cinema's destiny. HD is slow in coming to TV precisely because definition is not the quality people require of TV first. Like the Internet, what TV wants and gets is ubiquity. WebTV has the merit of combining the advantages of both dominant media of our time: the connectivity of the Internet and the collectivity of television. Both are also screen-based media which displace the locus of information-processing from the head to the screen. The mind is emigrating from the privacy of the head to engage into new forms of association and behaviors. Beyond the technological paradigm shift lies a fundamental psychological restructuring, as has always been the case when a major new medium reached a critical mass of human processors. As we move on-line en masse and individually, as we rely more and more on organized networked data for instant quality information and knowledge, as we connect more and more with like-minded people in just-in-time associations, we are going soon to recognize that we all belong to one or many more network supported "mental" communities. This is much more than the "virtual" ones we have been told to expect because mind communities are based on human relationships rather than on technology. So we will use WebTV to carve our own networks in the collective offerings of larger psychological communities of mind.

So what kind of policy can we consider for that new psychological reality ?

   1. There should be no restriction about webcasting other than those which are covered by the local laws of decency and good neighbourly conduct (on the Net, the whole world is your neighbour) in any civilized country.
   2. Likewise, the local legal provisions preventing the criminal spreading of false rumors or warmongering should suffice to allow for a measure of control of willfully untrue declarations or pronouncements on-line.
   3. The word "broadcasting" should be replaced by "posting" when people refer to "publishing" (another wrong concept) for on-line distribution. This linguistically sanitary measure would automatically render inoperative most legislation covering radio and TV when applied to the Internet.
   4. If national and local government are to survive the radical fragmentation of all human associations down to the individual body-unit and the irrepressible trans-border data flow of all communication, they would be well advised to protect its public media, e.g. public radio and public TV. The development and protection of new public venues on and off-line, within and without linguistic boundaries will replace the army and military investment as defense mechanisms for large bodies of human associations.
   5. The very notion of boundary should give way to networks. Political organizations and policy will reflect networked associations based on local and global interests with direct participation rather than representation; Internet policy should attempt to support that.
   6. The conditions of successful human interactions in a WebTV environment are:
          * open access (i.e., affordable and reliable)
          * early adoption (i.e, educable)
          * fluid navigation (ubiquitously available)
          * targeted connectivity
          * security

The paradox of the Internet is that while it is addressed to the individual user wherever he or she is, what it provides has no boundary, and thus is global. So whatever legislation is being considered has to be inclusive and global. The main issues hence are to identify what is "public" as opposed to private domain in global terms (in that respect the question of "domain name" debated in the discussion group is of the highest relevance if not always of the highest congruence). Just as western society at large eventually developed a charter of human rights a little over 50 years ago, we should now consider what would be the items and contents of an international charter of information rights. And world governments should agree on providing a global or many global public consulting venues and also offering global public services to that effect.

Another global concern affecting the immediate and the future state of connected communications is the issue of software patents and copyright. As the system becomes a seamless unified environment, world agreements must be considered to balance the individual rights to intellectual property with fair use and distribution. In software as in medical, pharmaceutical and engineering innovation and practice, local patenting practices often put a stranglehold on individual talent.

Another issue, more controversial perhaps, goes under the general notion of the "bit-tax". The bit-tax is much resisted in the US generally, but supported in Canada and the Netherlands by many, and particularly by Dutch economist Luc Soete from the university of Maastricht. Soete suggested in the recent economic Forum in Davos where the emphasis was on big business becoming "responsible" that as the bulk of the earning power of the economy moves from hardware to software and from off to on-line, the bulk of public revenue should also take its source there. At the very least, it was suggested that a modest bit-tax be levied for the support of infrastructural and economically viable access to networked communications in underprivileged countries.

One marketing temptation that might affect Web TV adversely would be for big media concerns to put a proprietary stamp or conditional relationships of use on portals and access within specific channels. Legislation should ensure that "vertical integration" is not allowed to any single TV and Internet access provider. In other words, I would not want to be in a situation where because I am tuned to one TV channel, this limits my navigation abilities to a preselected sequence or number of sites Local governments should do everything they can to avoid granting exclusive rights of occupancy to a handful of access providers the way they have tended to legislate cable and TV channels. The Chinese model of controlling web access by licensing agreements is a dangerous precedent in that direction.

Nor do I feel more confident about the American way that seems to say: "Let the market forces do the self-regulation". That's ok for you when you control the whole show, as the US communication empire does, but it leaves all the others in the lurch. Today, practically all Internet communication transits via the US (including messages sent from Ottawa to Montreal or Vancouver, for example). That is not a comforting thought, even less so for Europeans.

In the end, we may continue to trust that the focused self-organizing principles that have governed Internet evolution so far will prevail for the better, but focus here is the operative word. The Internet works and has successfully resisted vertical biases in its information control flows but mainly because people with brains and hearts have kept paying attention. The N5M invites just that kind of attention.

A footnote on the Next Five Minutes:
The time span indicated by the ironic title N5M is put in perspective by the project announced at the Doors of Perception Conference on Speed in November 1997 and now in process of realization by Danny Hillis, a century clock which beats a second a year. I was reminded of this important art and technology concept by a curious fact of astronomy which is given evidence by the accuracy of the records kept by Babylonians of full solar eclipses. The computer-assisted calculations of waves of eclipse frequency over the last millennia first show that the ancient records were accurate down to less than a degree in space and than a second in time, but even more than that, it is the very precision of such records that allow scientists today to estimate that there has been an imperceptible but verifiable slow-down of the Earth's rotation speed. Such a huge throwback in relevant data charted by people even if they may not have had our problems in mind heralds a formidable change of scale in time which is commensurate with the change of scale satellites and instant networked access is now bringing to space. The idea of the N5M suddenly feels like eternity..