[okfn-discuss] PSP consultation response

Saul Albert saul at theps.net
Sat Jan 27 03:19:26 UTC 2007

Hi you lot,

Thanks very much for all the constructive criticism. Driven, for once,
to actually finish a rant, I applied some polish, cut bits off the top
and extended the end to cover last night's fiasco.

I sent it to those involved in the consultation already, and am hoping
to post it to the blog asap... when it's availability issues are
resolved (eek!).

In any case, feedback - as ever - much appreciated. What I'd really
like is if someone could come up with a snappy and catchy title for the



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
-------------- next part --------------
At Rufus Pollock of the Open Knowledge Foundation's command ('It's your
civic duty!') I decided to accept an invitation to the riverside HQ of
OFCOM, the UK's independent regulatory body for television, radio,
telcoms and wireless, to participate in a discussions about what the
UK's putative 'Public Service Publisher' should be.

It seems that OFCOM recently noticed the Internet and decided that some
kind of public service intervention was necessary beyond BBC online's
existing offering. They got a budget of 100 million UKP together and
embarked on a consultation process led by Andrew Chitty of 'convergent
media' production company Illumina Ltd.  (http://www.illumina.co.uk).

The room at OFCOM's London Bridge offices was populated with execs from
Yahoo, Google, and various Internet Service Providers as well as
institutional players like the British Film Institute and the BBC. I
think I was the only person there not representing a large corporation
of some sort. I worked out what my civic duty was going to be when the
'creative' director at Wanadoo suggested that the PSP's 100M budget
should be given to the telcos and ISPs for their wonderful PSP-like job
of carrying peer to peer network traffic, and nobody batted an eyelid. I
spent the rest of the day desperately clawing the discussion back to
what the 'public service' bit could mean. 

While reading through the consultation website
(http://www.openmedianetwork.org.uk) and skimming the full consultation
document: 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 I really wasn't sure we'd even get that

Reading through the wordy reiterations of the BBC and OFCOM's mission
statements in relation to one another and the Internet, I was also
pleased to see a mention (however vague) of the Creative Commons
concept (http://creativecommons.org). 

Unfortunately, this is diluted in a load of projects bunched together in
the 'already-out-there' section:
http://www.openmedianetwork.org.uk/alreadyoutthere/. The strange
groupings of web sites there set my alarm bells ringing, headlining
narrowly UK-focused, mostly government-funded sites of dubious
popularity and quality while relegating Wikipedia and Flickr to
footnotes in the 'other links' section of the 'User Generated Content'
category alongside (bizarrely) Ebay and the Human Genome Project.

In this blurry segway into a list of web sites, it became clear that the
decision had already been made to turn the PSP into a funding agency
that gives money to people to make British 'new media projects' -
presumably with the overarching aims of 'educating' and 'entertaining'
the 'public'. 

What I was really hoping for was a 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 that one comment I'd made about these sites had made
it into the report:

"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".

What a pity that it hadn't been understood at all.

Deep breath.

'Cinema' is not a project. It is 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 the First Oligopoly in the early 19-teens, 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 system
emerged in the 30's, leading to intense vertical integration of the
whole film industry.

The British Government's attempted 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
low-quality low budget 'quota-quickies' in the run up to WWII, which put
the final nail in the coffin of the British Film Industry. It's been
interestingly pathetic since then.

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 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 socialise online is dangerously
similar to Cinema's vertically integrated Hollywood-centric oligopolies?

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 yet 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
  uncatalogued 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 tax-payer funded
factory for reinvented wheels. What I didn't understand until yesterday,
25th January 2007, was who would be running the factory.

After fuming over the newly published PSP report, I went to see a
presentation by the author Andrew Chitty from Illumina Ltd. at an
'InSync' event organised by Frank Boyd at 01zero-one in Soho: the centre
of the UK Film Industry, such as it is.

Andrew Chitty's presentation was about how the recent Communications Act
(2003), which grants IPR rights to independent TV production companies,
rather than to the commissioning broadcasters could be mirrored in
agreements he, as a Vice Chair of PACT (the UK's media industry lobby
group - http://www.pact.co.uk) is negotiating with the publically funded

He also talked about how if a similar arrangement could be made with the
putative PSP, it's 100 million jackpot could be used to part-fund
projects to which independent production companies like Illumina Ltd.
would then own international IP rights. 

The last thing I heard him say, nodding complicitly to his BBC
comissioner in the front row was 'maybe this one will land us all on
that private Greek island'. Then the red mist came down and I vaguely
remember lashing out verbally in the ensuing debate before leaving to
spare myself total apoplexy.

It is hardly surprising that the PSP report would be so skewed to the
interests of the media industry lobby groups. After all, with the UK
advertising and media industry in a recession - that structural change
and viewer-group fragmentation onto the US-dominated Internet may make
permanent - the public purse must look increasingly tempting.

What is so infuriating about this stitch-up is that it completely misses
the real commercial opportunities in public service models on the Net.

The infrastructure of the Net as an offshoot of US federally-funded and
therefore Public Domain defence research became a common carrier on
which millions of businesses, supported by the universe of Free and Open
Source software have been built. The disproportionate reach that
creative entrepreneurs could have using this common infrastructure gave
birth to the Yahoos and the Googles that are now beginning to enclose
parts of it. 

Sadly, it seems the PSP outlined in Andrew Chitty's document will be
producing a remake of the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, funding the the
struggling UK film and TV industry to produce a quota of parochial 'new
media projects', the IPR to which they may then exploit world-wide.

The challenge for the PSP, totally missed by this consultation lies in
addressing the strategic concerns of the Net as a global and national
infrastructure, exploring and protecting the educational, commercial and
societal possibilities of what 'public service publishing' might mean in
this new context.

More information about the okfn-discuss mailing list