DCMS: Who Cares What the Public Thinks?

The UK government's communications review is likely to have a big impact on the digital world. As part of that investigation, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DMCS) is organising five seminars to canvas people's views on various...


The UK government's communications review is likely to have a big impact on the digital world. As part of that investigation, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DMCS) is organising five seminars to canvas people's views on various aspects of communications. These are:

The Consumer Perspective

Competition Content Markets Maximising the value of spectrum to support growth and innovation Driving investment and growth in the UK's TV content industries Supporting growth in the radio (audio) sector

As can be seen, most of those concentrate on the production side, which makes the first of them particularly important because it is the only one concerned directly with the public. Here's the background information:

Driving growth in the UK economy and furthering the interests of UK consumers can be complementary goals, with consumer expectations and behaviour often leading to innovation in digital content and services. Since the last Communications Act the range of platforms and applications through which consumers can access content and citizens can interact with each other and the world around them has changed exponentially. The way in which the communications sector regulatory framework impacts upon consumers is therefore a central consideration of the Communications Review.

As technological advances provide increasingly varied ways to access content and services, it is important that consumers and citizens are sufficiently protected from any potential harm, and that they are well-informed of their rights should they need to seek redress.

To address these issues, this seminar focused on the consumer and citizen perspective. It:

Examined consumer issues and trends, and what changes technology has created for consumers and citizens Identified key areas of focus for government in respect of meeting consumers' current and future needs and concerns Sought views on future threats and opportunities for consumers of communications products and services

Which all sounds sensible stuff.

These seminars were open to all, but places were only granted by invitation. I applied, and was turned down – nothing surprising about that – there's no reason that the DCMS would want little people like me. But naturally I was curious to find out who did go, and in what ways they represented consumers. A list has been posted, and it's, well, interesting.

For example, it contains representatives from such well-known consumer advocates as BSkyB, Google, Microsoft, Adobe, Pearson, RIM, BT, Alcatel-Lucent, Facebook, Yahoo, Vodafone, Apple, Time-Warnber, Nokia and – of course – the PRS.

Now, it might reasonably be said that the presence of these and other multinationals and lobbying organisations could offer some useful perspective for discussions about consumers and their needs and desires; and that's certainly true – I don't have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is the fact that out of the 90 or so people attending less than 10% came from groups that could be in any way be classed as representing consumers. Around 90% were from the other side – the people producing stuff for consumers to, er, consume.

This makes Ed Vaizey's opening remarks pretty risible:

Today we are looking at consumers. Our thesis is that what is good for the consumer is good for growth. We want to put the consumer at heart of policy. But we want to test this view too. What it means to be consumer in 2012 is different to when the last communications act was underdevelopment a decade ago.

Consumers are "at the heart of policy" only in the sense that beef is at the heart of Beef Wellington: to make it easier to find and cut up into juicy chunks.

Vaizey went on to mention one area that wouldn't be discussed:

The other big issue is copyright and intellectual property. We have a huge ongoing programme in that area. We regularly meet key players in this debate.

That's a real give-away: the UK government is meeting regularly with the "key players" in this debate – the huge multinationals, the powerful industry lobbying organisations, the fat-cat artists earning millions. But one group it isn't talking to and whose representatives are rarely invited to those meetings is, of course, the public itself, whose views are never sought, never considered, never respected – just like in this seminar.

The first main speaker was Ofcom's Chris Taylor, who said:

consumers are at the heart of the current framework. Our current duty is to further the interests of citizens, the basis of a successful system today.

But what might those interests be?

people are consuming more media and communication services and paying less for them. The right chart shows how much we spend. Great for consumers. But it creates challenges for industry: saturation point, reduction of income. … The issue of revenues falling will touch many providers. Naturally, they will want to retain their most profitable customers. This focus on high-end must not be to detriment of other consumers. We need to ensure that pricing is not detrimental.

Notice how this is presented as "great for consumers" but as a "challenge" for the industry. Actually, in case anyone had forgotten, this is how capitalism is supposed to work – allowing competition to drive down prices. It's indicative of the culture of entitlement that the media industry executives feel hard done by when capitalism does actually work and they have to try a little harder to earn their six-figure salaries.

To his credit, Taylor dared to touch on issues that weren't purely about how to make a profit:

We observe increasing advantage to being online. In future, likely to be a necessity. Those who cannot get online will need to get online. Online may become the only means of contacting important service lines. This raises issues of participation.

It also raises a huge red flag for any government plans to throw people off the Internet or throttle their connection for allegedly sharing copyright materials online under the measures of the botched Digital Economy Act. Doing so would amount to a completely disproportionate collective punishment akin to cutting off their electricity, or reducing its voltage, because they happened to use it to break the law in some way.

It's good that Ofcom raised this aspect, but probably too much to expect Mr Vaizey to agree – not least because he already declared he wouldn't discuss such aspects unless it was with the "key players". They've doubtless assured him that ruining children's prospects in life by cutting them off from the Internet during their school years was entirely appropriate, because actually hanging was too good for anyone who dared to commit the heinous crime of sharing files online.

The next speaker was Victoria Gaskell, a partner at Olswang:

I'm here because over the past 6 years we have run a consumer survey on the issue of convergence, interviewing over 2000 adults and senior executives too. There are three issues arising. One of the first was around purchasing digital content. The most interesting angle is balancing consumer interest and interest of distributors. Consumers would like to watch what they want where they want. But good content is expensive.

Asking the consumers what they want – what a truly innovative and welcome approach. And guess what? - those funny old consumers "would like to watch what they want where they want." And yet that seems to be a problem. Why? Well, because "good content is expensive." I'm not quite sure of the logic here.

Good content is expensive, so we can't let people pay to watch it when they want because then we wouldn't need expensive sales and marketing departments telling people when they are allowed to watch it? Good content is expensive, so we need to make it hard to access so that public becomes so desperate that they'll pay even extortionate prices for "premium" access? Good content is expensive, so we'll make it really hard to buy in the format people want so that they are driven to find unauthorised copies online instead? Your guess is as good as mine.

But actually there's a fundamental problem here: the statement "good content is expensive" isn't necessarily true. It's been true to a certain extent so far because that's the way the industry has been set up, just as $100 million blockbusters from Hollywood cost $100 million not because they have to, but because that's the way it's always been done, and it lets some people get obscenely rich along the way.

But as anyone who has spent any time online knows – I appreciate that this may not apply to many of the people who took part in the "Customer Perspective" seminar – good content doesn't have to be expensive. Just take a look at the some of the 72 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute. OK, not much of it is truly great content, but much of it is quite good; and most of it cost little to make, since it's basically videos of cats or mashups of pre-existing materials. Or look at the stuff on Facebook or Twitter: again, maybe not quite Shakespeare in terms of poetry or profundity, but entertaining enough for the odd billion people to spend hours engaging with it every day.

That invocation of expensive content is symptomatic of the failure of the DCMS seminar to recognise that key shifts have taken place in the world of creativity over the last ten years. That failure is largely down to the fact that no one present was in a position to give the perspective of consumers. Instead, the seminar turned into companies' perspectives on consumers as passive objects – as if they were exotic beetles pinned to a board being examined under a microscope. If you read the transcript, it is almost entirely about figuring ways in which the media companies can continue to make lots of money pushing out "content" to "consumers", despite all the other distracting stuff available online.

But that's the second issue: people are no longer passive consumers, meekly accepting whatever is thrown at them at the times and in the formats the production companies lay down. Today, people want, as the Olswang lady put it, "to watch what they want where they want" - they want to be in control. Even more radically, an increasing number of them – especially of the younger generation that will form the future core of the adult population – don't just want to consume, they want to create too.

That doesn't necessarily mean writing an opera or directing a six-part TV series; it might just mean embedding videos in blogs, or re-mixing songs and images. It's an entirely different relationship with what we used to call "content" , which is now turning into a kind of raw stuff for people to make part of their lives in different ways.

These are challenges, yes, but they also bring with them huge and exciting opportunities. None of this was touched on in the seminar – nor could it have been, because the people participating were almost entirely from the media dinosaurs who are still trying forlornly to fight back these huge shifts. And one of the main ways that they are doing that is through the repressive use of outdated monopolies like copyright – an approach enshrined in the deeply-flawed Digital Economy Act.

Excluding that aspect from this discussion was not just a minor detail, it goes to the heart of the utter incomprehension of both the old media industries and the UK politicians that support them so blindly. Addressing that is not just a matter of inviting the right people to the odd seminar, but of engaging massively with the public and listening to what they have to say.

Until that happens, the likely result of the UK government's nominal consultations on communications policy will be yet more legislation that is not just wrong but dangerously wrong, since it will further alienate an entire generation, and cause them to have even less respect for the law in this area – a deeply worrying prospect for anyone who cares about the state of British society.

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