[okfn-discuss] public service publisher discussion documents out

Saul Albert saul at theps.net
Thu Jan 25 18:10:44 UTC 2007

Hi All, I wrote this as a blog post for okfn. Would you all be terribly
embarrassed to be associated with it if I posted it?

Title missing.

I was glad when on Rufus' insistence ('It's your Civic Duty!') I decided
to go to ofcom's riverside HQ at London Bridge and participate in a
discussions with a bunch of other smart-looking white guys (and a few
gals) about what the UK's putative 'Public Service Publisher' should be.

The room was filled with execs from Yahoo, Google, as well as
institutional players like the BFI and the Beeb. I guess I was (as
usual) the only person not on a nice fat salary at the table. But as I
said, I was glad that they'd invited me in the end.

It wasn't the high quality biscuits that made me glad, it was the fact
that when the dodgy git from the 'creative' department at Wanadoo
suggested that the PSP's 1 billion budget should be given to the Telcos
and ISPs for their wonderful PSP-like job of carrying p2p content, I was
there to suggest that this might not be the best use of taxpayer's coin.

I did a lot of wry chuckling and head-shaking that day, a bit of
spluttering into my Perrier, and made a few (hopefully) more articulate
contributions none of which gave me much hope that the PSP would be
anything other than a funnel of public funds into another doomed online
offering to the great and gastly 'public' in partnership with all kinds
of poisonous corporates and some kind of monstrously distended

Having read through the website http://www.openmedianetwork.org.uk and
skimmed the chunky pdf:
http://www.ofcom.org.uk/consult/condocs/pspnewapproach/, I was
pleasantly surprised to see that heavily watered-down mention was made
of non-restrictive IP models:

"...it is unlikely that restrictive IP models will maximise public value
in a way which is consistent with the overarching thesis of the paper,
namely that new forms of public value can be found in the participatory
media environment which are distinct from those in the traditional world
of linear broadcasting."

Whew! For the first few pages of guff I really wasn't sure we'd even get
that far.

Reading through the pickled reiterations of the BBC and OFCOM's mission
statements in relation to one another and the Internet, I was pleased to
see a pickled reiteration of the Creative Commons 'concept'. Of course
the terms in which it was described were vague enough for it to be

I read the rest of the website with an increasing sense of despair.
This report, which I'm sure cost a great deal and provided many
Shoreditch twats like me with high quality biscuits just randomly grabs
Cool Things (flickr! youtube! wikipedia! - and puts them alongside some
snaggle-toothed UK Gov. Funded counterparts in a ditzy, glitzy 'already
out there' section:

Of course without these bright shiny colours and this undifferentiated
platform for mediocrity the report would be extremely dry - like the
pdf, which is actually much less depressing.

But the chief cause for my grumpiness is not the lack of distinction
between 'good' and 'funded' projects on offer as possible fundees of the
PSP, it's that somehow, the decision has already been made to turn this
PSP into a funding agency that gives money to people to make new media
'projects' - presumably with the overarching aims of 'educating' and
'entertaining' the 'public'. I use scare quotes because I'm scared.

What I was really hoping for was a tiny little bit of strategic
thinking: thinking that might actually recognise that the Net and the
emerging universe of electronic devices that people use to communicate,
create and use networks, and on which people build their own platforms
is an *infrastructure*, not a fairground.

I was glad to see this one bit of input from our discussions on the

"what we see now are the equivalents of the 19th century end-of-the-pier
zoetropes and nickelodeons, but somewhere in there is the new cinema".

But dismayed to see that it hadn't been understood.

Deep breath.

'Cinema' isn't a project. It's a complex and interlinked infrastructure,
that was only allowed to develop because of the difficulty Edison
Laboratories would have had in patenting the Kinetoscope in Europe -
partly because he'd borrowed from prior British inventions. In fact, it
was two British inventors: Birt Acres and Robert Paul who extrapolated
this invention into the first 35mm camera - which they never managed to
patent effectively. This didn't stop a war raging over patents - led by
the Pathe Freres company in Europe and Edison's Motion Picture Patent
Company (a.k.a. the 'First Oligopoly' in the US, patenting and
controlling technological development, owning cinemas and developing
monopolies throughout the industry. The judiciary of the US - through
public interest patent-busting and anti-trust suits finally broke this
Oligopoly in the early 19teens, only for others to form - consolidating
the power of the Film and global mass media industries in Hollywood as
the 'Independent' studios and thier 'star' systems emerged in the 30's,
leading to intense vertical integration of the whole film industry in
the run up to WWII, which put the nail in the coffin of the British Film
Industry. It's been interestingly pathetic since then.

The British Government's intervention in this consolidation process was
the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, which put a quota on British Films
being shown in UK Cinemas - leading to overproduction of crappy low
budget quota-fillers. Nice.

So the question is not which of these 'projects' is the next cinema?
The question is - what underlies these projects? Who are the Edison Labs
and Pathe Freres, MGMs, Paramounts, Foxes, RGOs and Loews of the Net?
Who is defining and owning and shaping how the Net is used, understood
and extended?

These days, it looks like the Search Engines. The Googles, the Yahoos,
the information associators who have a semantic stranglehold on the Web
and increasingly on other parts of the Net. This is not to mention the
infrastructure owners: the DNS demagogues, the backbone bonapartes:
the people who can hit the 'off' switch or suddenly start metering
access to their network territories.

But what could a Public Service Publisher do about this? Surely it's in
the public interest to address the fact that the infrastructure we're
all using to do business, publish, and do business online is dangerously
similar to Cinema's vertically integrated hollywood-centric monopoly?

Clearly, the PSP is going to do absolutely nothing:

"A further key role for the PSP would be in ensuring that search
mechanisms for its content - and conceivably for all public service
media content - become as efficient as possible. This would never extend
to the development of a search engine, but it would involve working with
search engine specialists and the major global and local players in
search to establish tagging and discovery mechanisms to facilitate

Wonderful. We're going to help them tighten the stranglehold they
already have.

My response to these discussions, emailed to the organisers after the
session doesn't appear on the empty 'responses' section of the site.
For the record, this is what I thought the PSP should do at the time:

- Researching and advising on best practice in metadata, exchange and
  archiving standards.
- Researching and advising on best practice in legal preservation and
  maintenance of publically funded IPR.
- Producing and maintaining high quality free educational materials for
  groups and individuals in how to publish their video/audio/text online
  and archive it well enough for it to not contribute to the backlog.
- Investing in open source software and shared IPR projects that are
  consistent with and facilitate the above goals.
- Research and develop systems for traversing, searching and making
  inferences from data generated by the aggregation of all this published
  material, and make that data, and those queries available via open APIs.

Last, but not least, I interjected a little plea:

    Please, please *please*, don't lets reinvent any wheels. There are
    some great projects and initiatives out there, mostly organised
    along very ad-hoc and non-institutional lines. If this PSP idea can
    be kept human-scale at the edges, can be smart and careful in how it
    invests money and time in things, it could become part of an
    existing international ecology of open source publishing platforms,
    advisory organisations and citizen-publishing initiatives.

I'm sorry to say, it looks to me like the PSP we're talking about isn't
just going to reinvent the wheel, it's going to be a state-run factory
for reinvented wheels.


The People Speak   | 17-25 Cremer St.  London E2 8HD | http://theps.net
studio +44 (0)20 76133001 | saul: +44 (0)7941 255210 | ms at theps.net

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