Digital should signal era of no interference

Media File by John Blundell in The Business

THE charm of Tim Berners Lee’s invention we call the internet is how it emerged at such speed unencumbered by rules and regulations. If you exclude the Chinese authorities, who have invested vast resources to censoring e-traffic within their territories, no nation states have been quick-witted or quick-footed to suppress or distort, or even tax, this new form of communication.

Governments wanted to intervene but lacked a platform from which to control the service providers.

Our familiar and much-loved broadcasting is at the opposite end of this spectrum. The BBC and other “platforms” as the jargon has it, are all creatures of regulation. Although bureaucracy had little clue how to cope with the digital revolution, it knew well how to contain radio and television – to channel them into public sector agencies and block competition. It seemed reasonable to argue that the electro-magnetic spectrum was a limited resource leaving no room for the “chaos” of competition.

Now that we know that there are no limits to digital signalling, the shortage arguments do not apply. Some would argue this is too simplistic. The problem is not just the spectrum but interference. Of course you can create a property right in a given wavelength but it is not satisfactory to then have to continually defend that property right on an international basis while the pirates usurp your audience and thus your revenue.

But wait. What malevolent muddling institution is there lurking in the darkness waiting to pounce upon this flourishing new sector that brings us football matches on our wrist-watches and cascades of data on our mobile phones and Blackberries? I’ll give you a clue. The bulk of the new technical innovations are in English. You’ve got it. The European Commission has several new directives up its sleeves. It argues that “linear broadcasting” is controlled and governed by national bodies but the new “non-linear broadcasting” offering on demand and interactive content must be regulated.

There is a hazard here. The thickets of commission jargon are so dense that I’m not clear those invoking it understand it. I do not. There is a more subtle point too. With an imperfect understanding of the technology and its potential the new directives will miss their target. Yet the target is plain enough: pesky Anglo-Saxons, including those tiresome Americans who persist in using English when a fair EU needs parity for French, naturally, but also for German, Portuguese, Finnish, Latvian and Greek.

The new legislation is championed by Commissioner Viviane Reding. She is doing what all bureaucrats do. She is extending her powers and legitimising her authority. Economists term this behaviour “rent-seeking”. What I find alarming is the evident naiveté of the British media and technology companies willing to comply. They may mutter about the detail but the crux of all regulation is in who or what it excludes. The magic at the heart of the digital technologies is they have been open to everyone.

Adam Smith warned us 200 years ago that businessmen will always conspire against the public interest. Is this happening again… but nourished by the ever-pernicious European Commission?

Anthony Walker, chief executive of the Broadband Stakeholder Group, said the regulatory proposals are so far-reaching they could extend to limiting individual weblogs.

I’m comforted to think that the agility of both entrepreneurship and the accelerating speed of the technology deployed may leap over the commission’s appetite to meddle. They could also remove themselves from the jurisdiction of the commission by going offshore. The House of Commons has a committee examining this. As far as I know no parliamentary group has ever defied the Commission; everyone is busy trying to be “good Europeans”.

In a sense we have all been here before. Once printing presses were invented every prince in Europe, backed by the Papacy, regulated new publications with especial ferocity if they challenged ecclesiastical conventions. In Britain, the Crown tried to smother then tax the disconcerting power of words and ideas.

Much of new digital traffic seems to me to be witheringly banal, but it reflects what participants want. If all we seek to send is varieties of the prosaic domestic “I’m on the train”, who is Commissioner Reding to deter us in how we send our messages?

Note the defining characteristic of this matter. There is no “democratic” demand for this initiative. Nor are courts being stumped by digital disputes and seeking refined authority. This is pure, distilled, bureaucratic empire-building trying to solve a non-existent problem.

The EC is the enemy of the spontaneous, the voluntary and the competitive. It is socialism made flesh.