Access Restricted

Abstract: This article discusses policy aspects of communications. It argues that the Government's Information Policy is full of populist dogmas. But the ultimate aim and effect of such policies is not to stimulate local industry and employment, but to restrict access to information. Regulation by definition is restrictive, in this case it only restricts access to communications. Government by nature wants to restrict access to ideas that oppose the way that the Government organizes society, i.e. along the lines of territorial borders.


A. Why Committees fail

The Government is always keen to follow a so-called National Information Policy. It is a recurring phenomenon that committees of scientists and other 'wise men' are appointed to formulate recommendations for the Government on Information Policy. Such committees then study existing regulations regarding broadcasting, telecommunications, cable-TV, datacommunication networks, etc. They typically picture a future in which all videogame machines, audio-visual equipment, telephones, computers and office equipment are connected to one gigantic information network.

The Government likes the vision of a single, all-encompassing network and is keen to formulate the terms of references of such committees in such a way that they will concentrate on such a vision. Catchphrases such as the coming Information Super-Highway aim to convince people that the planning, ownership and control of all such 'infrastructure' should reside with the Government. The Government wants 'traffic rules' for this Information Super-Highway, 'streetlights' and regulations as to who is to be connected where, when and at what price. The Government wants standardization and regulation. More than anything else, the Government wants control over all the information carried over such a network.

Invariably, the conclusion of such committees is that existing regulations have to be amended, as legal distinctions between such networks and between equipment are blurring. Such committees claim that underlying technologies are converging, even though in fact diversity is increasing. And invariably, such committees turn out to be unable to design a detailed regulatory framework that can accommodate the rapid technological progress and rising consumer demand.

Ask any committee-member for reasons for their lack of success and they may say that some members were politically prejudiced or that the committee was limited by the terms of references as defined by some forces within the Government. Some brave members may even admit that there was heavy pressure from parties with vested interests in the existing situation, parties that were afraid to lose their privileged positions and rather saw nothing changed. And as none of these problems seems insurmountable, the Government keeps on appointing new committees.

But the one reason why committee after committee fails is that their political agendas do not work out in reality. Such agendas contain the deceptive rhetoric of political dogmas, rather than practical solutions.

B. Public Access Dogma

The dogma that is part of virtually every political agenda on information policy is public access. Virtually every politician wants the general public to share the technological potential, they want as many people as possible to connect to the network they envisage. And to achieve this, they promote standardization, non-discriminatory access policies, uniform service quality, universal pricing policies, networks that do not just cover the central business districts of cities, but also reach out into rural areas, etc.

They argue that the more people are connected to the network, the more valuable this network becomes to each one connected. Thus, they argue, cross-subsidies make access not only more affordable to the poor but, by implication, benefit all.

But with all their regulations they effectively restrict access, rather than promote access, and the network they envisage is an illusion, at best an inferior contraption and even the most remote and poor user in the end suffers the consequences.

C. The Reliability Dogma

Reliability is often used as an argument by the Government to justify its control over communication networks. The Government argues that communication is essential in emergencies such as accidents, fires, earthquakes and wars. In such situations, networks must operate with minimal disruption. Continuity of service at a good quality is best guaranteed, they say, through direct control by the Government.

But time and again have such government-controlled services proven to be influenced by narrow-minded interests, loaded with bureaucracy, lacking responsiveness to user demand and commercial realities, to the extent that service quality is less than mediocre and in times when such services are critical, their quality is inadequate.

D. Protectionist Dogmas

Protectionism is behind many aspects of communications policy, e.g. overseas telephone calls are overpriced to subsidize the domestic network. Many politicians believe that, in order for them to be elected, they need to pamper the 'populist' vote by portraying themselves as defenders of national culture, local employment, etc. They believe they can achieve this by restricting access to what are deemed to be 'foreign' cultures. Socialists also reject investment by foreigners with the absurd argument that this will result in profits going abroad, while in fact foreign investment implies that profits made overseas are taken into the country to create local employment. On the other hand many politicians boast that 'our national network' is increasingly expanding into overseas ventures (in other words, is taking profits abroad). By the way, such overseas ventures are rarely a financial success, but the hypocryts are quick to portray such failures as a form of diplomacy and foreign aid. Conservative politicians argue that, in the national interest, infrastructure such as communication networks should not be controlled from abroad, but they are keen to use public money to invest in foreign networks. Whatever way one looks at it, the arguments do not stick. Note that the protectionist argument to some extent also overlaps the before-mentioned reliability dogma.

E. Consumer Protection

The content of the information carried by communication networks is regulated in many ways, on topics such as defamation, libel, blasphemy, lese-majesty, discrimination, harassment, infringement of intellectual property rights, fraud and swindle, criminal conspiracy, tax evasion, contempt of court, illegal gambling, ads for drugs and prostitution, censorship of pornography, indecency, violence, 'official secrets', offensive behavior or language, details on 'substance abuse', explosives, etc, etc. The Government controls the media in all kinds of ways, such as by pre-defining and licensing the use of frequencies, by scrutinizing potential owners and by demanding specific programming. Under the cloak of consumer protection, the Government demands standards from the media that ensure that no information is disseminated that the Government does not like. But at the same time, the Government indemnifies its own postal and telecommunications carriers when they deliver information that may be harmful. Such double standards have resulted in artificial distinctions between broadcasting and telecommunications that are time and again defied by technological developments.

The Government claims its regulations are there for consumer protection, but it only restricts communications and as such it violates the rights of users of communications. As an example, local councils may prohibit the installation of antennas; in doing so, they give prevalence to presumed aesthetic feelings (of neighbours and passers-by they claim to represent) over rights of users of communication services, e.g. freedom of speech. Invariably, the result is that access is restricted.

The ultimate insult in this regard is competition policy. The Government restricts cross-ownership of media, regulates the use of the frequency spectrum arguing that it is a finite resource, licenses telecommunications with the argument that it is a natural monopoly and controls activities such as installation of antennas and cabling of roads. But if all this control is supposed to lead to more competition, how then is it possible that only a handful of owners control virtually the entire transport and communications sector in Australia?

F. Regulation only restricts

In the final analysis, committee after committee is appointed to re-investigate the situation with the ambitious task to create an infrastructure that will bring Australia the benefits of modern communications well into the next century. And time and again such committees come to the conclusion that regulations stand in the way.

The Government's tactics are to make it look as if it facilitates access to communications by changing and adding to its regulations. But regulation, whatever its shape, by definition restricts access to communications. The Government regulates to control society and to prevent information to emerge that might expose such deceit. The fact that so few people seem to understand this shows that these tactics still appear to work.




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