Workshop on ‘The Internet: Between cultural value and economic good. An uncharted legal terrain or do we need a differentiated concept of regulation?’

A Reporters Without Borders (RWB) mission report on the decline in media freedom in Greece has just been published. The RWB’s team visited Athens in the summer of 2011 to investigate the reasons behind the country’s decline in media freedom ratings. Greece fell sharply in the 2010 World Press Freedom index, ending up last in Europe in the 70th place (in the 2009 ranking it was in the 35th place), together with Bulgaria. Accounting for this worrying trend, the report concludes, is mainly the economic and financial crisis which exposed the weaknesses and malpractices of a defective media market which has been for years artificially supported.

The report draws attention to the fact that a country of the size of Greece does not have the financial means to support an array of media outlets that were for most part sustained through a system of cronyism, advertising credit and government advertising. Businessmen, construction magnates and ship-owners who control many domestic media outlets have largely ignored media laws and have used media ownership as a means to win influence and apply political pressure in order to constantly obtain renewable loans from banks. Due to the economic crisis, funding for so many media has simply dried out and many media companies are threatened with collapse. Extensive layoffs have made journalists, already suffering from poor pay and conditions, more vulnerable to pressures.

The blogosphere offers a freer space for expression. Journalists who have lost their jobs find in the blogosphere a ‘place where they try to continue working. The web offers no short or medium-term earnings but in a country where most journalists have not been paid for more than six months, going online makes little difference to them’ (p. 7).

The report highlights that a very deep crisis of confidence has developed between the media, journalists and the public. Journalists are often identified with the political class which has ‘betrayed’ the country. As a result, many journalists fear physical violence, while others are assaulted in the streets.

At the same time, working conditions when reporting on demonstrations, especially in big cities, are harsh. The RWB report mentions that journalists often face attacks by the police, ‘yet such attacks are never officially condemned, either publicly or internally’ (p. 8).

RWB ask ‘that all complaints filed by journalists and photojournalists about police violence be carefully examined, that each be investigated and the results sent to the complainant and journalist organisations, and that exemplary punishment be meted out’ (p. 21). The report concludes with recommendations to the government and the relevant authorities to engage in a regular dialogue with journalist organisations as soon as possible so as to work together on practical measures and procedures to ensure that the media can work freely in public places.

View the report here.

The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), the German MEDIADEM team and the Law Faculty of the Bielefeld University organised a workshop on ‘The Internet: Between cultural value and economic good. An uncharted legal terrain or do we need a differentiated concept of regulation?’. The event took place on 22-23 September 2011 in the premises of the FES in Berlin. The objective of the workshop was to shed some light on the different cultural and economic prepositions and interests of the actors that shape the regulatory regime for the Internet, ranging from online media-related questions to more general considerations of media policy.

Whilst the cultural value of the Internet cannot be questioned, the same can be said about the economic value of Internet services. The daily communication of Internet users via email, Twitter, and Facebook, the knowledge-building that is taking place in Wikipedia and the political and societal influence of the Internet in the Arab countries but also in our Western societies illustrate the manifold cultural aspects of the Internet. The annual turnover of Internet access providers and online music stores account for the Internet’s economic aspects among others. These cultural and economic functions determine the applicable fundamental rights prescribing and confining the remit of the lawmaker. Departing from these observations, 15 experts with different academic and professional backgrounds discussed currently debated issues.

During the two-day workshop it became clear that the Internet constitutes a highly dynamic and ever-changing network of users, platform providers, and technical infrastructures, which create many different communicative forums. This new, ‘potential’ public complements the traditional public of mass communications like press or television. While public mass communication once took place through the press, television, and radio with journalists as intermediaries, any individually-produced video on the issues once reserved to traditional media can now gain publicity.

The large number of different actors in the Internet and its global outreach renders the process of regulation complex and calls for a differentiated approach. For instance, national actors, especially state actors of broadcasting legislation, have to take the ideas and views of Internet’s active users more into account than before. Additionally, Internet regulation involves national, European, and international political actors and, thus, a broad spectrum of different legal traditions and decision-making processes.

Besides these broader issues, some of the debates on Internet regulation were presented and discussed in more detail during the workshop. Among the topics dealt with were: intellectual property law, public service broadcasting and EU state aid control, ancillary copyright law for publishers, the independence of regulatory bodies, civic journalism, data protection, the protection of privacy as well as censorship and block lists of websites. Clearly, it is still open which way Internet regulation will go, which cultural or economic aspects will be given precedence, and what balance will be found for the partly conflicting interests and the deriving objectives. In the case of Germany, the Basic Law established some framework conditions regarding communication, access to knowledge, protection of youth, and protection of intellectual property. Freedom of information and opinion, for example, enjoys a pronounced and privileged position in the Basic Law. Concurrently, safeguards exist for intellectual property, although the lawmaker has in this regard a broader margin of discretion.

The papers presented and the vivid discussions that followed were illustrative of the different viewpoints on the complicated and complex issue of Internet regulation.

The (translated) agenda of the workshop is available here.