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Symposium 2015

Solution for Brave New Media World? How the Internet Spreads Information Across the Globe

The Challenge

Hardly any recent innovation has contributed as much as the Internet to making the world become globalized. With this new medium, information about nearly any topic can be distributed at high speed an ...

Hardly any recent innovation has contributed as much as the Internet to making the world become globalized. With this new medium, information about nearly any topic can be distributed at high speed and low cost, worldwide. This development most obviously has fostered international economic integration by lowering transaction costs. Moreover, it facilitates the transnational organization of political interests by providing efficient channels for mass communication. Eventually, new media might thus contribute to improving the provision of global public goods by equally spreading information on costs and benefits of related policy measures around the world, and helping to formulate demand accordingly.

However, the mere availability of new media does not necessarily guarantee an equal spread of information and better informed consumers, as a consequence. In fact, new media shift the costs of filtering information onto the user, and differences in the ability to do so may even increase the knowledge gap between the informed and the uninformed, within and between countries. If users find it too expensive to search and validate information from different sources, they might rely on biased information that match their preconceptions instead, potentially fostering ideological lock-ins. If individual costs of processing information are prohibitively high, consumers might even consume less information.

So, paradoxically, the new media may spread information globally, without improving the average consumers' deeper understanding of worldwide economic and political developments. While access to new media is the prerequisite for spreading information more equally, it is the new media consumers' patterns of usage that eventually determine whether progress in the information and communication technologies will result in more or less informed consumers.

Securing Access to Information by Securing Access to and Payment of Content Originators

The general question raised for the session “Brave New Media World” is: “How to exploit the new media’s potential for more equally spreading information worldwide without creating new disparities in the ability to make use of it?”

Better availability of information is evident due to lower distribution and transaction cost: Availability of almost all traditional media has spread enormously through the Internet and mobile structures in the world. Much more information has become available in social media as spreading information comes at almost no cost. Better availability due to lower distribution and transaction cost might not mean better availability of all information everywhere as availability and speed of Internet access, availability of content in different languages, and the ability to pay for content will continue to differ as has access to old media in the past. Also, censorship prevails independent of media channel. In addition, information and data access by itself might not be decisive from a consumer perspective as often not data or information, but insights derived from data and information are sought after, the result of research, analysis, journalistic work.

The information each person can access once the person is connected to the Internet will continue to vary as in traditional media:

  1. According to the willingness to pay: while more information is freely available, not all information will be free.
  2. According to quality and reach of the personal contact network and the associated knowledge how and where to access the information needed.
  3. According to the country the person is living in.
  4. According to the language capabilities of the person: the smaller the language area, the less information is assumed to be available.

 

Therefore, apart from increasing broadband reach and mobile reach so that everyone can get connected to the net, basic policy guidelines that have been in place prior to the distribution of the Internet will need to stay in place:

  1. Educate in reading and writing skills so that people are able to use the tools and access the information that will become available to them.
  2. Educate in the major languages (English, Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish) as there will be a higher availability of information in the major languages than in the small languages as more users mean more people creating content.
  3. Reduce censorship.
  4. Protect copyrights/intellectual property rights so that economic rewards are available to people investing in creating information and insights and enlarge this mandate by counteracting cybercrime.

 

Given that much more information and insights are available, retrieving information and insights becomes more challenging. It is doubtful that the traditional mechanisms of relying on brands for certain types of published information on the one side and personal networks for comments/questions will be replaced. Any human input and reliance on branded content will, however, be complemented more and more by machine algorithms and rating mechanisms to structure and access information, as has been the case for a long time by using search engines on the web or using ratings.

The Internet is known for two tendencies: the concentration of success (winner-takes-it all phenomenon) on the one side, the long tail on the other side. Transferred to media/information content, this indicates that the big brands will increase their reach and market share while delivering “branded” reliable information, while there will be a plethora of available content with low or specialized reach due to the low cost of distributing it once it is produced. It is to be expected that the majority of people will convert to using the main brands (new and old, general and specialized) as the mechanisms of the net in form of brand recognition, recommendations, viral communication will foster network effects. It is also to be expected that the “better” information websites will outgrow the other information websites by far. “Better” will not necessarily always be orientated only towards the objectivity or completeness of information, but might refer to the “best” expression of certain opinions. At the same time, it is to be expected that the Internet user will source his information from more sources than before given the availability of the long tail of information on the Internet. Monetization of the content will certainly be possible in this context for major brands, however, it will be economically challenging for the long tail.

The fallacies and manipulation options of old media apply as well in new media. The low information distribution cost makes it easy to spread as well as to counteract false information, as long as allowed in the specific media environment. The discourse on social media as well as the discussion forums, among others, meanwhile integrated into media websites provide calibrating mechanisms against one-sided opinion or information distribution.

While new media technologies as such are neutral towards the mechanisms of selecting information on the supply and demand side, the market developments in search and social media have led to a new form of access to media and information through aggregators on the Internet. The winner-takes-it-all phenomenon does not only encompass the main media brands, but also the access to media and media brands through aggregators and search engines. Search engines and aggregators meanwhile show a high concentration which creates imbalances in the market positions between content providers on the one hand and aggregators and search engines on the other hand, thereby creating challenges in securing access for content providers. By choosing factual media access through few aggregators like Google, Apple and Facebook, consumers delegate the visibility of the available choice of media to algorithms. The concentration of access to the media content and the lack of transparency of the algorithms can be seen as threat to press and content diversity if no regulation is applied to avoid preferential treatments or even exclusion through dominant aggregators. If left unregulated, the aggregators and search engines might become major instruments to influence public opinion as well as to decide about the economic well-being of those who offer content by cutting off or restricting consumer access deliberately or for their own interests.

To calibrate the above dangers, two key needs can be identified on the regulatory side:

  1. Ensure that a variety of alternative offers for information and insights as well as alternative models of access to these offers are available and competing with each other. This includes secured access of publishers to digital distribution platforms, including protection against limitation of published content on purely commercial grounds.
  2. Ensure the right and ability to monetize content for publishers and news/data/insight producers to protect the privately-funded diversity of journalistic content in today’s society. This includes compensation from individual users as well as from search engines and aggregators that access and republish the content while free access to content shall need the prior consent of the content owner. Concentration on the aggregator- and search-engine side will make collective rights management necessary to balance the positions on both sides, especially for the long tail of information and insight offers.

 

The above should be reflected in an extension of ancillary copyrights from film and phonogram producers to authors and press publishers which at a minimum should secure a revenue share for them from aggregators and search engines using their content to generate revenues, and could go as far as creating an independent right for publishers that they can monetize on.

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