It’s undeniable that the freewheeling nature of the Internet is behind the exponential growth that it has experienced. It was a communications platform that was unencumbered by corporate overlords, free from gatekeepers that enabled people around the world to communicate with each other. However the gatekeepers of old have always tried to claw back some semblance of control at every point they can by imposing data caps, premium services and charging popular websites a premium to give their customers preferred access. Such things go against the pervasive idea of Net Neutrality that is a core tenant of the Internet’s strength however the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the USA is looking to change that.
FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has announced today that they will be seeking to classify Internet services under their Title II authority which would see them regulated in such a way as to guarantee the idea of net neutrality, ensuring open and unhindered access. The rules wouldn’t just be limited to fixed line broadband services either as Mr Wheeler stated this change in regulation would also cover wireless Internet services. The motion will have to be voted on before it can be enacted in earnest (and there’s still the possibility of Congress undermining it with additional legislation) however given the current makeup of the FCC board it’s almost guaranteed to pass which is a great thing for the Internet in the USA.
This will go a long way to combatting the anti-competitive practices that a lot of ISPs are engaging in. Companies like Netflix have been strong armed in the past into paying substantial fees to ISPs to ensure that their services run at full speed for their customers, something which only benefits the ISP. Under the Title II changes it would be illegal for ISPs to engage in such behaviour, ensuring that all packets that traverse the network were given the same priority. This would then ensure that no Internet based company would have to pay ISPs to ensure that their services ran acceptably which is hugely beneficial to Internet based innovators.
Of course ISPs have been quick to paint these changes in a negative light, saying that with this new kind of regulation we’re likely to see an increase in fees and all sorts of things that will trash anyone’s ability to innovate. Pretty much all of their concerns stem from the fact that they will be losing revenue from the deals that they’ve cut, ones that are directly in competition with the idea of net neutrality. Honestly I have little sympathy for them as they’ve already profited heavily from investment from the government and regulation that ensured competition between ISPs was kept at a minimum. The big winners in all of this will be consumers and open Internet providers like Google Fiber, things which are the antithesis to their outdated business models.
Hopefully this paves the way for similar legislation and regulation to make its way around the world, paving the way for an Internet free from the constraints of its corporate overlords. My only fear is that congress will mess with these provisions after the changes are made but hopefully the current incumbent government, who has gone on record in support of net neutrality, will put the kibosh on any plans to that effect. In any case the future of the Internet is looking brighter than it ever has and hopefully that trend will continue globally.
If you haven’t been deliberately avoiding mainstream media for the past couple days then chances are you’re already aware of Amazon’s latest announcement in Amazon Prime Air. It sounds like the world of science fiction, being able to place an order for something and then have it delivered by an automated right to your door in under 30 minutes. Indeed it pretty much is for the time being as whilst there seems to be a large amount of foundational work done on it the service is still many years away from seeing actual use. So this has had many asking the question: why would Amazon bother announcing something like this when its so far away form being a reality?
As many have already rightly pointed out the timing of the announcement seems to point towards it being an elaborate marketing campaign with Amazon managing to snag a good 15 minutes of advertising, ostensibly for free, from the 60 minutes program. This happening right before Cyber Monday is too much of a coincidence for it to be anything other than planned so, at least for the short term, Amazon Prime Air is a marketing tactic to get people to shop at Amazon. I’d hesitate to give credence to the theory that it’s been done to remediate Jeff Bezos image though as those rumours about his personality have been swirling for ages and I’d be astonished if he wasn’t aware of them already.
However the one thing that this idea has going for it is that Bezos is behind it and this isn’t the first wild gamble he’s undertaken in recent memory. Back in 2000 he founded Blue Origin a private space company focused on human spaceflight. Whilst it hasn’t made the headlines like its competition has it’s still managed to do a handful of test flights and has worked in conjunction with NASA on its Commercial Crew Development Program. Whilst this is a worlds away from flying drones to deliver products it does show that Bezos is willing to commit funding over a long period of time to see something achieved. Though this still leaves the question of why he made the announcement so soon unanswered.
For what its worth I think the reasoning behind it is to get the public talking about it now so that there’ll be some momentum behind the idea when it comes time for Amazon to start talking with legislators about how this system is going to work. If the FAA was anything to go by such a system wouldn’t see the light of day for another 13 years or so. Whilst it’s definitely not ready for prime time yet due to the numerous technical challenges it has yet to overcome it’s unlikely that they will take that long to solve. Putting the screws to politicians in this way means that Amazon doesn’t have to spend as much money on direct lobbying or convincing the public that it’s a good idea.
As for me personally I think it’s a nifty idea however its application is likely going to be horribly limited, especially in locations outside of the USA. A quick glance over this map reveals just how many locations Amazon has in various countries (don’t be fooled by those 2 locations in Australia, they’re just corporate offices) and since their drones need to launch from one of the fulfilment sites you can see how small a range this kind of service will have. Of course they can always widen this by increasing the number of distribution centres they have but that’s antithetical to their current way of doing business. It’s a challenge that can be overcome, to be sure, however I just don’t see it getting much air time (ha!) outside of major capital cities, especially in non-USA countries.
I’d love to be proven wrong on this however as the lazy introvert inside me loves not having to do anything to get stuff that I want and the instant gratification such a service would provide is just the icing on the cake. However it’s unlikely to see the light of day for several years from now and likely the better part of a decade before it comes to Australia so I’m not exactly hanging out for it. I think the idea has some merit though although whether that will be enough to carry it on as a viable business process will be something that only time will be able to reveal to us.
There’s little doubt that the past decade has brought upon us rapid change that our current legislature is only just beginning to deal with. One of my long time bugbears, the R18+ rating for games, is a great example of this showing how outdated some of our policies are when it comes to the modern world. Unfortunately such political antiquity isn’t just isolated to the video games industry it extends to all areas that have been heavily affected by the changes the Internet has brought, not least of which is the delivery of content such as TV programs, newspapers and radio. This rift has not gone unnoticed and it seems the government is finally looking to take action on it.
Enter the Convergence Review a report that’s was commissioned in 2011 to review the policy framework surrounding Australia’s media and communications. It’s a hefty tome, weighing in at some 176 pages, detailing nearly every aspect of Australia’s current regulatory framework for delivering content to us Australians. I haven’t managed to get through the whole thing but you don’t need to read far into it to understand that it’s a well researched and carefully thought out document, one that should definitely be taken into consideration in reforming Australia’s regulatory framework for media. There are a couple points that really blew me away in there and I’d like to highlight them here.
For starters the review recommends that the licensing of broadcasting services be abolished in its entirety. In essence this puts traditional broadcasters on a level playing ground with digital natives who don’t have the same requirements placed upon them and their content. Not too long ago such an idea would seem to be a foolish notion as no licensing means that anyone could just start broadcasting whatever they wanted with no control on how it was presented. However with the advent of sites like YouTube such license free broadcasting is already a reality and attempting regulate it in the same fashion as traditional methods would be troublesome and most likely ineffective. Abolishing licensing removes restrictions that don’t make sense anymore given that the same content can be delivered without it.
Such a maneuver like that brings into question what kind of mechanisms you would have to govern the kind of content that gets broadcasted. The review takes this into consideration and recognizes that there needs to be some regulation in order to keep in line with Australian standards (like protecting children from inappropriate content). However the regulations it would apply are not to every content organisation. Instead the regulations will target content organisations based on the size of the organisation and the scope of their audience. This allows content organisations a lot of flexibility with how they deliver content and will encourage quite a bit of innovation in this area.
The review also recommends that media standards apply to all platforms, making the regulations technology agnostic. Doing this would ensure that we don’t end up in this same situation again when another technological breakthrough forces a rethink of our policy platform which as you can tell from the review is going to be a rather arduous process. Keeping the standards consistent across mediums also means that we won’t end up with another R18+ situation where we have half-baked legislation for one medium and mature frameworks in another.
The whole review feels like a unification that’s been long coming as the media landscape becomes increasingly varied to the point where treating them individually is complicated and inefficient. These points I’ve touched on are also just the most striking of the review’s recommendations with many more solid ideas for reforming Australia’s communications and media policies for a future that’s increasingly technologically driven. Seeing reports like this gives me a lot of hope for Australia’s future and I urge the government to take the review to heart and use it to drive Australia forward.
The last two months have seen the R18+ debate flare up to fever pitch levels once again with gamers all around Australia enjoying both the joyous highs and perilous lows. It all started back at the start of March when the Australian Classification Board banned the upcoming release of the latest Mortal Kombat, leaving gamers reeling from the loss of yet another AAA title to the dreaded RC rating. Just over 2 weeks later saw Minister O’Conner give an ultimatum to Australia’s states and territories giving us hope that one day Australian gamers wouldn’t have to put up with being treated as children forever. This was then brought crashing down again when Attorney-General Clark decided to oppose the idea, effectively forcing O’Conner’s hand at a full classification system upheaval and delaying the introduction of a R18+ rating for a good while.
The seeds of dissent have already taken hold however with the vast majority of the Australian public being very supportive of the introduction of a R18+ rating. Whilst it’s not a big enough issue to swing an election one way or the other it still manages to garner a good chunk of media attention whenever it pops up and its opposition face an uphill battle in convincing Australia that it’s a bad idea. It seems that the issue is starting to reach boiling point with the South Australian Attorney-General, Jon Rau, declaring that he’ll go it alone if the national scheme gets stuttered (with the ACT following suit) and wants to abolish the MA15+ rating entirely:
Rau, and the South Australian Labor Government, has said that he will abolish the MA15+ rating in that state, as a way of “more clearly defining” what is (and is not) suitable for children.
His proposed plan would change the system to include G, PG, M and R18+ classifications (while still allowing for games to be Refused Classification or effectively banned), making a “clear difference” between what adults can play and what is available to children.
There has been quite the reaction to this news in the media with many supporting the introduction of the R18+ rating but staying mum on the whole removal of the MA15+ rating. It’s true that the MA15+ rating has been used quite broadly in Australia with many games that got R18+ equivalents in other countries being down rated for Australia, many without modification. Additionally MA15+ rated titles are supposed to be controlled via identity checks (since they’re restricted to people over 15) however there’s no real enforcement of this and I can tell you that as a enterprising youth I was able to acquire many MA15+ titles and I was only ever checked once, when I was 16. I would happily pay the price of the MA15+ to get R18+ but I’m not so sure that it’s in Australia’s best interests to do away with the rating entirely.
You see the idea of a R18+ game brings about a whole set of rules that will need to be followed for the rating to be effective. Since these games are effectively becoming a controlled substance like cigarettes and alcohol there will need to be ID checks for those who look under 25, possible regulation of marketing materials for the games and access to the physical copies of the games restricted. This does place a burden on the retailers and could see some of them refuse to stock R18+ games just so they don’t have to bother with the controls. This already happens in the USA with Walmart refusing to stock any game classified AO or movie classified as NC17+. The MA15+ rating could still prove useful to publishers who are seeking to make their product more accessible, even if that means reworking it slightly.
That doesn’t mean that the MA15+ rating itself couldn’t be reworked a little to match up more closely with its international counterparts. The M rating already covers off material that is considered to be unsuitable for people under the age of 15 and many countries put their mature delineations at 16 or 17 (PEGI and ESRB respectively) along with their R18+ equivalent. In all honesty I believe PEGI gets it most right with their incremental ratings system but there’s even still merit with the ESRB model that allows for some material to be sold unhindered whilst still giving the R18+ option for when its required.
Realistically Australia’s rating system needs an overhaul as whilst I’d love the R18+ rating to be introduced tomorrow doing so in the style of “You can buy it in one place but not the other but ordering it from there is fine” sort of thing we’ve got in the ACT for porn (and soon R18+ games) isn’t doing us any favors. We’ll probably have to deal with the virtual R18+ ghetto for a while whilst the wheels of the government slowly turn which is still a positive result for Australian gamers, even if they’ll have to route all their purchases through Canberra or Adelaide. It’s the first step in a long way to the total reform of the classification system and it really can’t come any sooner.