To all whom these presents shall come, greeting!
Reminder: this is my personal blog, conveying my personal opinions
When John Reith lobbied the government of the day for the creation of the British Broadcasting Corporation (having served as the British Broadcasting Company’s general manager for a year), it was in recognition of the fact that spectrum was a limited resource, and so broadcasting was too important to be left solely in the hands of those who would provide anything less than universal service. The result was a corporation was publicly-funded, but independent of both the government’s editorial agenda and the finer detail of who paid the bills; the BBC was conceived as being truly universal.
In 2015, this structure remains at the heart of the constitutional make-up of the corporation, and despite the protestation of some commercially-interested critics, is far from an anachronism. Indeed, the BBC is a uniquely good force in providing services for nearly everyone, while being simultaneously funded by nearly everyone (in terms of coverage, the household-level Licence Fee has a greater level of universality than Income Tax). Nowhere is this made clearer than in the definition of “licence fee payer” in the current Charter:
In this Charter, a reference to a “licence fee payer” is not to be taken literally but includes […] any other person in the UK who watches, listens to or uses any BBC service, or may do so or wish to do so in the future.
Side-note: If you ignore the “Elizabeth the Second by Grace of God of the United Kingdom…” stuff, the Charter is intended to be read by the likes of you and me, rather than just politicians and civil servants. Don’t forget the agreement, too, which goes into a bit more of the nitty-gritty about it all.
Given the impending Charter renewal, and the increasing ubiquity of the Internet, it is crucial that the BBC continues to reflect its public service credentials upon new media as they emerge. The BBC’s Public Purposes are intended to codify this, albeit in not the most accessible of language—each one of the six embodies an ideal of building upon independence and universality to do something only the BBC can, across citizenship, education, culture, inclusivity, the global community, and crucially in this case, the benefits of communications technologies.
The mistake that everyone makes with the idea of “digital public space” that’s been kicked around for some time now is to assume the interventions need to happen at the upper layers of the Internet. “The Web’s not at all broken beyond repair!”, people shout. They are right. In fact, I count myself amongst them.
Most of the principles which underpin digital public space can be implemented, using existing commodity technologies, on the Internet today: HTTP gives us the ability to serve rich descriptive machine-to-machine metadata alongside the pages we browse, to assign persistent resolveable identifiers for things, and be explicit about how and where things can be reused, remixed and redistributed; assymmetric cryptography gives us the ability to put people at the heart of digital identity, to stop building gigantic federated systems (where somebody other than you or I is ultimately in control of our own identity), and to stop treating “assurance” as a simplistic monolithic creature, inexorably linked to identification online, and bearing no relation to the processes and constraints of the real world.
We can do all of those things on the Internet now, in principle. The problems aren’t technical in nature, but the vision is in conflict with some of the commercial imperatives of the more influential corporations inhabiting this world. Large companies want to be in control of everyone’s identity, because it puts them at the centre of the value exchange and allows them to collect more data that they can use for commercial gain later on—even if you don’t actually know this, you can deduce it: logically, why would they bother with all of the significant effort of building, securing and maintaining federated login systems that any site can buy into, with no money changing hands, unless there was something in it for them?
And so many of those institutions who have been working together to shape this vision have done so in partial recognition that publicly-funded bodies are in unique position: while they do need to spend money responsibly, there’s little in it for them to behave quite as a Silicon Valley tech start-up would; they exist to serve the public, en masse, rather than the advertisers whose collectively deep pockets make shareholders’ eyes light up.
By my reading, DOT EVERYONE seeks to encapsulate these parts of the vision: putting control back into the hands of the public, being altruistic in nature, and a recognition that the public sector has different imperatives than the private sector. Is it a good thing? On balance, quite probably. Does it need a new quango? Quite possibly not. Let’s try to make it a good thing, though, rather than assuming that it will or won’t be.
There is one area where the digital public space vision diverges from the Internet as we know it, and it’s an area of potentially great importance to the BBC (but not by any means only the BBC), and was the thrust of Tony’s Royal Holloway speech. Of all the fantastic, amazing things the Internet is and has made possible, a true provision of universal service which is comparable to broadcasting is not amongst them.
There’s a good reason for this: ring-fencing a bunch of stuff on the Internet and saying that anybody will be able to access it, even if they can’t get at anything else, they’ve reached their data cap, or let their account lapse has the effect of violating net neutrality to quite a significant and disastrous extent. The Internet is in a way a perfect free-market—often referred to as “the great leveller”—and that’s what makes it work, so well that it’s changed the world (and to a far greater extent than I came close to realising when I got excited by it in the early 1990s).
So, we can’t do that. I don’t want to do that. Given a choice between “delivering Freeview-style universal service in the UK using new technologies” and “the Internet”, I’d pick the Internet every time, despite believing that the former is going to be pretty crucial to the long-term survival of my employer and an institution I believe it’s incredibly important to maintain.
On the other hand, just as the licence fee funds universal access to television and radio broadcasts, I don’t believe the solution to the problems which come about as a result of people shifting away from them and onto the Internet for media consumption is to rope one broadcaster’s VoD service specifically into the licence fee: that strikes me (although I could be wrong) as being perilously close to the path to a subscription model.
Brief aside: the problem with a subscription model is that it rides roughshod through that universal service provision. It’s quite difficult now not to be a slave to audience figures (across all platforms); it could only be more difficult if the funding model is absolutely tied to them. We can’t deliver a universal service if we need to get as big an audience as possible at every turn to ensure that the bills get paid.
Instead, we need to come up with a model which allows for delivery of public services over IP—which can conceivably extend beyond public service broadcasting, but is not necessarily over the Internet. We can’t not provide universal access to public services as they’re increasingly delivered using Internet technologies, but by the same token we can’t destroy the Internet in the process.
I don’t know what that model looks like, but I’m pretty sure we need one. At the very least, we need to be absolutely sure of that the answer to “how do we ensure everyone gets public services (of all kinds, including public service broadcasting) to their devices in years to come?” really has been thought through properly.