posted Nov 01, 2003
in Communication Ethics

Communication Ethics book part for Exercise: Making a Good Law . (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)

Let's take the case of the Australian television authorities considering requiring a license for streaming video, and try to make a good law out of it in stages.

  1. Leave the law as it is: The first option is to simply ignore streaming video. But as I mentioned the first time we discussed this, sooner or later a streaming video provider can have all the reach of a conventional television station, and those television laws exist for a reason. This doesn't seem like a good idea.
  2. Require a license for streaming: As a first cut idea, this isn't too bad, but there's the obvious problem that not all streaming is television sized. One of the big selling points for cable modems where I live is that you're supposed to be able to do "video teleconferencing", and on a purely pragmatic level, nobody wants to license thousands or millions of normal citizens (as opposed to large corporations) streaming video; who's got the budget to afford that?
  3. Define "large-scale streaming": You might consider defining something like "large-scale streaming" to avoid the teleconferencing case. Maybe you'll define a "large scale streamer" as "an entity that serves out more then ten hours of video per hour". (Of course there's nothing holy about "ten".) But you've made a mistake... can you see what it is before I tell you the answer?

    I've implicitly defined "large-scale streaming" in terms of how it is technically served out. Therefore, you've opened yourself to technical circumventions of the law. Imagine a peer-to-peer video sharing network, where no one peer ever serves out more then ten streams at a time, yet the system as a whole reaches thousands or millions of people. As is usually the case with "technical" circumventions, there's a good reason to do this even outside of "getting around the law"; the bandwidth drain on any one person is much lower with such a system, and if done correctly is easier on the network as a whole as well. There's good reason to create this sort of network, technically. For a real-world example, see BitTorrent (http://bittorrent.com), which helps download large files like Linux distributions without hammering the hosting server.

    The question to answer at this point is "Who are we seeking to regulate, the broadcasters (transmitters) or content producers?" Since for television, broadcasters and content producers are typically the same organization, or at least very closely related, this will be a new conundrum for the television regulatory agencies. The answer changes depending on exactly which regulation we're considering. Certain types of regulations, such as "requiring X minutes of public service broadcasting a day" are regulating the broadcasters, whereas content-based regulations are laid upon the content producers. Since we're talking the Internet, the television regulatory commision probably won't have the power to regulate the Internet common carriers, so they'd either have to give up that idea or work with the agency or agencies that do have that power. They can continue to regulate content, though, so let's try that:

  4. Define "large-scale streams": I'd suggest something like "A large-scale stream is a stream created with the intent and reasonable knowlege that it will be viewed by X people in an hour shall be subject to the following restrictions:" where "X" is a reasonably large number like 100 or 1,000. Note that traditional television still handily fits within this definition. Note also that if someone posts one of those accidentally popular video files (like AYBABTU) they won't suddenly get smacked with the need for a broadcasting license; there's not much point then because such freak phenomenon are rare and unlikely to be replicated by the same person. If they do happen to be replicated, require a license.

    Also note I've not tied this to the stream being "live", because that is another technical consideration that would allow people to circumvent the law by not streaming it "live" but offering it for download instead. On the other hand, the phrase "in an hour" is necessary because a small video file could collect 1,000 viewings over the course of five years; we're not worried about those.

Now you've got the basis for creating law that can address things like content considerations without on the one hand unduly limiting technology, or on the other hand, being obsoleted by the advent of new technology. If it's a video stream going to X people per hour, this law covers it.

 

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