How does media regulation and convergence threaten civil liberties?
New digital technologies offer immense potential for civil society and it is in the interests of civil liberties that the public’s rights to the use of new media should be affirmed. There are, however, political and economic pressures upon governments to restrict certain useage. In the UK the increasing consolidation of media corporations has seen a small number of players wielding huge economic power to gain control of the media market.
There is a fear that, as media converge and ownership becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the media will cease to cover issues outside the mainstream. Pressures from sponsors or advertisers could limit editors’ freedom to cover issues concerning civil liberties that challenge the status quo.
There are growing restrictions on the use of new media, brought about by the increasing volume and sophistication of communications. These restrictions are of particular concern to community and minority groups as well as grass roots activists, but also affect the wider public. Some of the restrictions highlighted by such groups include:
* Restrictions imposed by BT on access to the local loop (the wires that link people’s home to the local telephone exchange). Although the regulator (OFTEL) and European regulations require the opening up of the local loop, no efforts have been made to allow access by other service providers.
* Access to higher bandwidth systems being limited mostly to urban areas.
* Proprietary systems which restrict people’s ability to use certain digital formats (it will be some years before free and open source systems are available for encoding and decoding of digital data, although some are in development).
Many activists believe that the Government’s 2000 White Paper promised great change, but essentially took a purely commercial view of how media corporations would provide services to the public. They complain that it did not provide a framework to enable free expression within civil society, nor did it ensure that services provided by minority groups would be protected from the actions of mainstream media organisations.
The draft Communications Bill, too, has raised serious concerns about small-scale use of networks and media technologies within the community. A small community group which sets up a network, for example, could be classed as a telecoms provider, and as a broadcaster if it then decides to stream live programs over that network. This would involve prohibitively expensive licensing procedures which could prevent such groups from finding an outlet for expression.
Proposals for an EU Charter of Fundamental Rights Related to Technological Innovation may provide civil society groups with strategies for possible legal challenges to any legislative proposals that restrict their rights to access the new digital communications technologies. In particular the proposed right to expression provides that everyone has the right to hold, receive and impart ideas without the interference of public authorities, regardless of frontiers.