How can creating a public service internet challenge the power of Google and Facebook?
Jeremy Corbyn, in the Alternative Mactaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV festival on Thursday 23 August, stressed the importance of policy innovations for strengthening the public sphere and driving back the power of the digital giants.
Facebook and Google under the spotlight from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in new proposals / Unsplash
So, what could be done about it? The University of Westminster’s Communication and Media Research Institute recently published two policy reports 'The Online Advertising Tax as the Foundation of a Public Service Internet' and 'The Online Advertising Tax: A Digital Policy innovation' introducing policy innovations for how to revitalise the public sphere by creating a public service Internet. Fast Food Media Google and Facebook control about two thirds of online advertising market revenue. One of the consequences is that public interest and investigative journalism are struggling to gain attention, visibility, support, and funding. By digital monopolies and the dominance of sensationalism and fast food media, the public sphere has become one-dimensional. What can be done in order to revitalise the public sphere?
A crucial first step is to tax digital monopolies in order to channel these resources into the funding of alternatives. There is a range of business models that the digital giants use, including targeted online ads (Google, Facebook), the sale of software licences/digital content (Microsoft), online retail (Amazon), charging a rent for the use of digital platforms (Uber, Upwork), charging a rent on renting out property via digital platforms (Airbnb), digital subscription services (Netflix, Spotify, Amazon Prime), and mixed models. Introducing a digital service tax on the value of such digital commodities creates a base for funding alternative and public digital services. On the one hand, the digital levy could be distributed via participatory budgeting to non-profit civil society media organisation (the participatory media fee). On the other hand, part of it could be allocated to public service cultural institutions such as public service media, public libraries, and public universities in order to create new digital services that are non-commercial, advertising-free, and non-profit. Such services constitute the public service Internet, whose purpose is not to yield profit, but to engage citizens, foster political understanding, online debate and participatory culture.
There is a range of conceivable public service Internet platforms whose creation could be financed through an online advertising tax. In the UK, one possibility would be to create a public service emulating YouTube (BBCTube), on which all of the BBC’s legally available archive of programmes could be made available to users for reuse with creative commons licences. Users could also upload their own videos to this platform and would have the additional option of remixing and reusing BBC-archive material.
One idea for this is the format 'Club 2.0', an example concept for a public service Internet platform. Club 2 was a programme broadcast by from 1976 until 1995 by the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF). In the UK, the format had the name After Dark. Club 2 was an open-ended, uncensored live debate programme that often featured controversial topics and guests.
Club 2.0 is an updated version of Club 2 in the age of social media. It would be live broadcast on television and on an online video platform (C2Tube). Club 2.0’s broadcasts are open-ended, live, and uncensored. Users can generate discussion inputs in the form of videos and comments. At specific occasions and points of time, user-generated videos are presented in the live broadcast as discussion inputs. In a three-hour long debate, there could be two to three video inputs. Club 2.0 supports and encourages discussion between users during and after the live broadcast. Video- and text based comments can be posted to each user-generated video that is shown in the live broadcast. Text-based comments could have a minimum length, videos a maximum length. In order to avoid high-speed debate and enable a slow medium, the number of comments (in video- and text-format) that can be made per user can be limited.
Club 2.0 is ideally integrated into educational environments, such as schools, universities, community centres, youth clubs, adult education centres, trade unions, civil society associations, NGOs etc. Groups of individuals should be encouraged in such institutions to get together and co-produce content that contributes to the discussion. The production process will foster political debate and engagement among those who are involved in it.
Revitalising the public sphere requires to not just drive back the power of the digital giants, but to also advance an alternative Internet that fosters platforms that decelerate information and communication as well as slow media that create new forms of engagement and debate.
Christian Fuchs is a critical theorist and professor at the University of Westminster, where he co-directs the Communication and Media Research Institute.