How to end the media free-for-all and regulate content, wherever it appears

It’s impossible to regulate the crowded media market under existing laws. Flickr/Stuck in Customs

Australia possesses an advanced digital economy which remains shackled to a media regulation system that belongs to the past century.

Our laws reflect an era when media consumption was dominated by the production of messages by the few for the many.

Our system of media content regulation is broken. We need a root and branch review, not just of our laws, but of our whole approach to understanding media content and who should be involved in governing and managing it.

We still treat media content as though it is produced in neat silos by media professionals. State by state, platform by platform, media content in Australia is regulated differently.

Our current system is enormously complex and has no real capacity to cope with a media environment in which content moves easily and horizontally across platforms and where the source, scope and purpose of content is highly diverse.

21st century media is marked by an unprecedented diversity of users and usage which spans the spectrum from amateur videos made for friends and family to high-end professional content produced for international consumer markets, often circulating on the same platforms.

Average Australians, including young children, now actively produce and distribute their own media content through blogs, social networking sites, and videos uploaded to platforms such as Facebook and YouTube.

The technological means to produce sophisticated media content have been domesticated and the distribution channels are changing almost weekly.

The internet acts as a conduit for multiple kinds of media content to circulate. Some is originally created, while other content has been uploaded from television, radio, games, film, and other sources.

Equally, content flows in the other direction: with TV shows, films and radio programs drawing content from the internet.

We have to understand media content through the lens of a media ecology: a dynamic, complex system of media genres and spaces which are closely interlinked.

If we consider the media ecology model, content is no longer defined by where it first appears. A radio program may be broadcast on the FM band, then made available as a podcast, someone may take a component of it and add it to an interview that appears on YouTube. Someone else may sample part of that podcast and include it on a track that appears on SoundCloud, which may then come full circle and be played on radio.

This kind of platform shifting and reappropriation of content is very common. Content is no longer medium specific, and should not be defined as such.

It no longer makes sense to understand media content as though it were produced and distributed by an elite group of identified producers who are relatively easy to regulate.

In this new horizontal environment, it is critical to pay attention to the different roles played by networks, platforms and content providers. Different regulatory and governance solutions need to be examined in each instance, rather than bundled together under existing regulations.

At the network layer, policy makers should focus on ensuring network openness, innovation and user choice.

At the platform and content provider layers, government should work with industry and users, including in global fora, to encourage self-regulation while facilitating the referral of genuinely disturbing material to national and international government regulatory instruments and agents.

The internet is not a new form of media: it is a new media environment where media users have unprecedented agency in consumption and production. Community education about internet use, online security and legal obligations should be a priority and be funded by industry and government working together.

Governments around the world now face extraordinary challenges in media content governance. And it’s for this reason that we welcome the announcement of the Federal Government’s Convergence Review.

In our recently released report, The Adaptive Moment, we argue that media users need to be brought fully into the media content governance space. For this reason we recommend that the government creates a Convergent Media Board to bring government industry and user into dialogue.

The Board should have a broad remit: to consider social, cultural and regulatory issues in relation to convergent media content and to identify areas for further policy debate and research.

The Board would also act as Australia’s centralised point of contact with international fora addressing media content governance and would work cooperatively with the Australian Media and Communications Authority (ACMA) in the latter’s regulatory role.

For self-regulation to work, industry must be prepared to endorse robust codes of practice, negotiated with users and government and monitored by a body such as ACMA.

Industry, like government, needs to take far more account of user concerns and give them the tools not only to notify inappropriate content but to have real say in how their data is managed.

In an era when it is media users themselves who are creating and exchanging much of our media content, it is essential that they are recognised as full digital citizens and given a clear role in media content governance and policy.

Associate Professor Kate Crawford and Professor Catharine Lumby’s report The Adaptive Moment: A Fresh Approach to Convergent Media in Australia was launched on Thursday 5th May 2011.