AT&T suggests Dish and DoJ are collaborating

With AT&T’s WarnerMedia and Dish arguing over a distribution deal, one AT&T executive has suggested Dish and the Department of Justice are collaborating to reverse the green light on the Time Warner acquisition.

The conspiracy theory is hitting new highs here. AT&T is effectively accusing Dish of actively working to create a no-deal situation in negotiations with WarnerMedia over rights to air HBO content. Although having HBO and Cinemax channels go dark on the Dish service would have a negative impact on business, it does coincidentally work well for the Justice Departments case appeal against the Time Warner merger.

WarnerMedia have been in negotiations over the right to air content, with it claiming it offered to extend the previous contract while negotiating but Dish declined. As a result, HBO content has disappeared from the Dish service.

“Dish’s proposals and actions made it clear they never intended to seriously negotiate an agreement,” said Simon Sutton, HBO President and Chief Revenue Officer, in a statement to Reuters.

With the appeal based on the grounds the AT&T acquisition of Time Warner would offer it undue control and influence in the industry, stagnant negotiations certainly add credibility to the objections from the Department of Justice. Manipulating the playing field however, as AT&T is accusing Dish of, is a serious no-no when it comes to the courts.

“This behaviour, unfortunately, is consistent with what the Department of Justice predicted would result from the merger,” said a representative of the Department of Justice. “We are hopeful the Court of Appeals will correct the errors of the District Court.”

“The Department of Justice collaborated closely with Dish in its unsuccessful lawsuit to block our merger,” WarnerMedia responded. “That collaboration continues to this day with Dish’s tactical decision to drop HBO – not the other way around. DOJ failed to prove its claims about HBO at trial and then abandoned them on appeal.”

The $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner proved to be a messy affair for AT&T. While some would have expected some resistance from the industry, the objections of President Trump seems to have encouraged the Department of Justice to chase down every lead, and make life as difficult as possible. The Department of Justice’s appeal against the approval of the deal, is effectively built on the assumption Judge Richard Leon didn’t know what he was talking about.

Publicity stunt? Monopolistic ambition? Nefarious schemes? Whatever the basis of this story, more fuel has been added onto one of the longest running sagas in the telco industry.

AT&T will launch Netflix competitor next year

In an SEC filing, AT&T has confirmed it will launch a new streaming service focused around HBO content to challenge the dominance of Netflix and Amazon Prime.

While details are relatively thin for the moment, though AT&T Entertainment boss John Stankey formally announced the new offering at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit in Los Angeles confirming the Time Warner assets would form the foundation of the streaming platform, with some third-party content building out the breadth and depth.

“On October 10, 2018, we announced plans to launch a new direct-to-consumer (D2C) streaming service in the fourth quarter of 2019,” the SEC filing states.

“This is another benefit of the AT&T/Time Warner merger, and we are committed to launching a compelling and competitive product that will serve as a complement to our existing businesses and help us to expand our reach by offering a new choice for entertainment with the WarnerMedia collection of films, television series, libraries, documentaries and animation loved by consumers around the world. We expect to create such a compelling product that it will help distributors increase consumer penetration of their current packages and help us successfully reach more customers.”

HBO, Turner and Warner Bros content will create an interesting proposition, though this of course relies on a successful merger with Time Warner. As it stands, District Court for the District of Columbia Judge Richard Leon has given the green light for the deal, though the Department of Justice is appealing the decision, suggesting Judge Leon did not appropriately consider the implications of the merger. It looks to be a done deal, though the DoJ is being as awkward as possible.

The question which remains is whether the Time Warner content will be enough, even with its library of titles and additional third-party content. Netflix and Amazon Prime are surging ahead of the competition in terms of subscriptions, 130 million and 100 million respectively, though Disney’s new streaming service could be an interesting offer with the 21st Century Fox programming assets. Hulu might not be on the same scale as these three, but with 20 million subscribers it is certainly a platform worth considering. AT&T is entering a very competitive market.

What this does also offer AT&T is potential entry to the international content market. This is where Netflix is targeting future growth, suggesting at IBC 2018 competitiveness in the US market won’t bring the growth figures investors consider appropriate.

The Time Warner acquisition has been one of the biggest talking points of the industry for the last 18 months, though one of the big questions is whether AT&T can effectively manage a business in such a different vertical. The traditional telco approach to risk and expansion will not work here, for this venture to be a success AT&T will have to be a lot more aggressive and embrace the concept of the fail-fast business model.

With the cards now laid out on the table, it won’t be long before we find out whether AT&T has the capability to effectively diversify outside of the traditional telco battlefield.

Even Snapchat is getting into the original content game

With social networking services seeking to improve the quality of content they host by making their own, even ephemeral messaging service Snapchat has felt compelled to act.

Snapchat has been teasing the idea of creating its own video content for at least a year, but this somewhat counter-intuitive move has taken a while to become reality. There is presumably only a very specific type of video content that is best consumed via a mobile messaging apps and now we finally get to see what that is.

“Today, we’re excited to debut Snap Originals – exclusive shows created by some of the world’s greatest storytellers, with new episodes released every day,” said the announcement. “Our first slate of Snap Originals includes Co-Ed, a new comedy from the Duplass Brothers; Class of Lies, a mystery thriller from one of the minds behind Riverdale; and Endless Summer, a docuseries following rising stars in Laguna Beach — from Bunim/Murray, the creators of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

“Snap Originals will also feature new Show Portals, letting you swipe up and step inside a scene from a Show to experience it for yourself. Snap Originals will also have Lenses, Filters, and other fun ways for you to share the show experience with your friends.

You can see the promotional video below. It indicates that Snapchat is trying to do some novel things that play to the strengths of video consumed via a smartphone. This trend also reinforces the consensus that video-driven mobile data consumption is growing exponentially and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

 

UK news media want tech giants to pay them annual license fees

A UK governmental review into threats to the press, principally from the internet, has led to calls for tech giants to pay for news content that appears on their platforms.

The Cairncross review asked for submissions on the matter earlier this month and has so far received them from the News Media Association, press regulators IPSO and IMPRESS, and the National Union of Journalists. The NMA one is headed “NMA Calls For Licence Fee Agreement With Tech Giants”.

“A fair and equitable content licence fee agreement would ensure that news media publishers are appropriately rewarded for the use of their content by the tech giants, safeguarding the future of independent journalism which underpins our democracy,” opened the NMA press release.

“The primary focus of concern today is the loss of advertising revenues which have previously sustained quality national and local journalism and are now flowing to the global search engines and social media companies who make no meaningful contribution to the cost of producing the original content from which they so richly benefit.”

On one hand this smacks of special pleading by an industry that has found its business model rendered obsolete within a generation. But on the other there are good arguments that the press should receive special treatment given their democratic role in holding power to account and informing the population. This is also a good time to be trying to extract money from tech giants, following the approval of tough new digital copyright rules by the EU.

Given the virtual impossibility of tracking every news link published on every digital platform, the plan seems to be to come up with some kind of arbitrary license fee, essentially a special tax, and impose it on any tech company that is perceived to be profiting from news stories in any way. This cash would then be handed over to news media organisations according to a formula yet to be determined.

One of the potential variables for determining how much of a kick-back a given title would get could be the highly subjective concept of ‘quality. The NUJ and the regulators all dwell on this a fair bit but seem to all have their own definitions of quality.

“The union believes that the best definition of what constitutes ‘high quality journalism’ is work that complies with the NUJ’s long-established ethical code of conduct and the NUJ’s submission to the review highlights that NUJ members work hard to produce quality content for websites and newspapers in extremely challenging circumstances,” said the full stop-averse NUJ.

“Another problem with the move towards accessing our news online is the proliferation of fake news, often disseminated through social media,” said IPSO. “Without a thriving press, there’s little antidote to online disinformation – and the effect this might have on the public’s ability to participate meaningfully in society should be of concern to us all.”

IMPRESS wants the UK government to “create a new legal identity – ‘Public Interest News’ – for the publishers of high-quality journalism. This identity would be distinct from charitable status, so that publishers could still publish political news and comment, but it would have some of the benefits of charitable status.”

By definition a free press should be unshackled by external quality control. The European Commission has recently indicated it would like to regulate newspapers to prevent them criticising it and campaigning organisations such as Hacked Off (which supports IMPRESS, incidentally), want to restrict the press according to their own systems of weights and measures.

But that doesn’t mean we should ignore this issue. Google and Facebook account for a very high proportion of all ad spend in most places they operate and a lot of the traffic they monetise is driven by content produced by professional journalists. Even alternatives to mainstream media are dependent on tech platforms such as YouTube and Twitter. While this internet tax has many flaws it is at least a reminder to the tech giants that if they don’t do more to ensure a healthy and diverse news media environment, governments might take matters into their own hands.

AT&T launches online advertising marketplace Xandr

Two multi-billion dollar acquisitions and a funny name later, the AT&T content business vision starts to become a bit clearer.

AT&T has announced the launch of Xandr, its new content business unit which will combine current capabilities (e.g. AT&T AdWork and ATT.net), the Time Warner and AppNexus acquisitions, as well as distribution partnerships with Altice USA and Frontier Communications into a notable advertising entity. While the initial plan is to capture a slice of the digital advertising bonanza which has been fuelling the monstrous growth at Facebook and Google, long-term ambitions are a lot grander.

“Xandr is a name that draws inspiration from AT&T’s rich history, including its founder Alexander Graham Bell, while imagining how to innovate and solve new challenges for the future of advertising,” said CEO Brian Lesser. “Our purpose is to Make Advertising Matter and to connect people with the brands and content they care about. Throughout AT&T’s 142-year history, it has innovated with data and technology, making its customers’ lives better. Xandr will bring that spirit of innovation to the advertising industry.”

In the first instance, Xandr will combine the distribution and data capabilities of AT&T, with content catalogues from Time Warner, Frontier and Altice USA and the technology platform of AppNexus to make a more complete advertising offering. With its 170 million subscriber base of mobile, broadband and OTT products, and the data collected on these customers, AT&T believes it can offer a hyper-targeted advertising solution and more effective ROI, to rival the likes of Facebook and Google.

But this is only the first step of the business. In the long-run, AT&T hopes there will be an opportunity for advertisers to bring their own data, augment this with the AT&T customer insight to provide an even more targeted and efficient proposition. These are the foundations of what the business hopes will eventually become an advertising marketplace, where all distributors, content owners and advertisers can combine. AT&T will enrich these offerings with its own data, and even offer tie-ins to Insight Strategy Group and Advertiser Perceptions in order to understand the dynamics between consumer sentiment and the advertising experience. We might have been waiting a while for this move in the content space, but it certainly is an in-depth one.

The partnerships with Insight Strategy Group and Advertiser Perceptions are certainly interesting ones as well. Understanding the dynamics between sentiment and advertising can aid advertisers in placing the right type of advert, in front of the right consumer, at the right time. Its a science which leans on art, but has the potential to be very useful.

The AppNexus acquisition was only completed in August for $1.6 billion, having announced the intention to buy the business in June. Through AppNexus, AT&T has been able to bolster its capabilities with an advertising marketplace, which provides enterprise products for digital advertising, serving publishers, agencies and advertisers. With AT&T’s first-party data, content and distribution the offering becomes more complete, as the focus turns to creating a platform that makes linear TV buying more automated and data-driven. Of course, part of this deal relies on the successful acquisition of Time Warner, which is proving to be more difficult business.

That said, while this is a good idea from AT&T to provide additional value to the content ecosystem, there will be complications. AT&T will have to convince competitor media companies to put their premium inventory on its network, while regulation could prove to be a hurdle as well. With data privacy a hot topic in the technology world right now, shifting around sensitive information and augmenting in such a marketplace might raise some concerns from privacy advocates.

Some have questioned whether AT&T’s venture into the content world, but this does look like to be a comprehensive strategy, incorporating several promised aspects of the digital economy. There are of course significant hurdles for the business to overcome, but it is a creative idea, perhaps one which would have been more likely to emerge from other segments of the technology world. More importantly, it is an opportunity for AT&T to provide value above connectivity.

The telcos will always have an important place in the digital economy, providing the connectivity cornerstone, though this runs the risk of utilitisation, slipping down the value chain. Using data for the purposes of advertising has always been a sensitive issue, though should AT&T be able to negotiate the red-tape maze, Xandr will enable AT&T to secure ‘UnTelco’ revenue. This is a case of a telco using what it has to add value to a parallel segment, as opposing to disruption and attempting to steal a limited amount of revenue. Its creating additional revenue streams and value.

Twitter wants your help with censorship

Social network Twitter continues to agonise over how it should censor its users and thinks getting them involved in the process might help.

While all social media companies, and indeed any involved in the publication of user-generated content, are under great pressure to eradicate horridness from their platforms, Twitter probably has the greatest volume and proportion of it. Content and exchanges can get pretty heated on Facebook and YouTube, public conversation giant Twitter is where it seems to really kick off.

This puts Twitter in a tricky position: it wants people to use it as much as possible, but would ideally like them to only say nice, inoffensive things. Even the most rose-tinted view of human nature and interaction reveals this to be impossible, so Twitter must therefore decide where on the nice/horrid continuum to draw the line and start censoring.

To date this responsibility has been handled internally, with a degree of rubber-stamping from the Trust and Safety Council – a bunch of individuals and groups that claim to be expert on the matter of online horridness and what to do about it. But this hasn’t been enough to calm suspicions that Twitter, along with the other tech giants, allows its own socio-political views to influence the selective enforcement of its own rules.

So now Twitter has decided to invite everyone to offer feedback every time it decides to implement a new layer of censorship. Do date the term ‘hate’ has been a key factor in determining whether or not to censor and possibly ban a user. Twitter has attempted to define the term as any speech that attacks people according to race, gender, etc, but it has been widely accused of selectively enforcing that policy along exactly the same lines it claims to oppose, with members of some groups more likely to be punished than others.

Now Twitter wants to add the term ‘dehumanizing’ to its list of types of speech that aren’t allowed. “With this change, we want to expand our hateful conduct policy to include content that dehumanizes others based on their membership in an identifiable group, even when the material does not include a direct target,” explained Twitter in a blog post, adding that such language might make violence seem more acceptable.

Even leaving aside Twitter’s surrender to the Slippery Slope Fallacy, which is one of the main drivers behind the insidious spread of censorship into previously blameless areas of speech, this is arguably even more vague than ‘hate’. For example does it include nicknames? Or as the BBC asks, is dehumanizing language targeted at middle-aged white men just as hateful as that aimed at other identity groups?

Perhaps because it’s incapable of answering these crucial questions Twitter wants everyone to tell it what they think of its definitions. A from on that blog post will be open for a couple of weeks and Twitter promises to bear this public feedback in mind when it next updates its rules. What isn’t clear is how transparent Twitter will be about the feedback or how much weight it will carry. What seems more likely is that this is an attempt to abdicate responsibility for its own decisions and deflect criticism of subsequent waves of censorship.

 

And the winner is… Comcast!!!!

Comcast has emerged as the winner of the drawn-out Sky acquisition battle with 21st Century Fox, offering shareholders £17.28 per share.

After 21 months, much bickering and passive aggressive commentary, the auction was completed on Saturday 22 September, with Comcast valuing the business at £30 billion. The unusual auction process was overseen by The Takeover Panel, an independent body established in 1968, whose main function is to issue and administer the City Code on M&A.

“We consider the Comcast Offer to be an excellent outcome for Sky shareholders, and we are recommending it as it represents materially superior value,” said Martin Gilbert, Chairman of the Independent Committee of Sky. “We are focused on drawing this process to a successful and swift close and therefore urge shareholders to accept the recommended Comcast Offer.”

“Sky is a wonderful company with a great platform, tremendous brand, and accomplished management team,” said Comcast CEO Brian Roberts. “This acquisition will allow us to quickly, efficiently and meaningfully increase our customer base and expand internationally.”

In securing Sky, Comcast not only adds an additional 23 million customer relationships to its current subscriber base of 29 million, it also increases its footprint in international markets. Prior to swallowing the Sky business, Comcast attributed 9% of its revenues to the international markets, though this now increases to 25%. It’s a more diversified business, offering comfort for Comcast shareholders, while also creating a broad and varied content portfolio. Alongside partnerships with HBO and Showtime, Sky also brings with it a heavyweight position in sport content, a presence which has underpinned its success.

Looking more specifically at the auction process, it was a slightly unusual one. Starting on Friday night, both companies made a starting bid, with the lowest offeror at the commencement being afforded the opportunity to make an increased bid in the first round. In the second round, only the offeror that was not eligible to make a bid in the first round could make an increased bid. If there was not an increased bid in the second round, the auction would have been concluded, though it did run to the third (and final) round, where both companies were offered a final opportunity to increase bids.

As a result of this process, Comcast tabled a bid of £17.28 compared to £15.67 per share from 21st Century Fox. The winning bid represents a premium of 125% to the closing price of £7.69 on 6 December 2016, the last business day before 21st Century Fox’s initial approach. Sky has proven to be a very successful bet for investors representing a ten-year total shareholder return (since 1 July 2008) of +402%, compared to +97% as an average of the FTSE 100.

While this might seem to be the end of a prolonged saga, there are a couple of twists yet to be turned. Firstly, Comcast still has to convince shareholders to part with their assets, and secondly, what will the future hold for the Sky telco business?

In terms of the shareholders, for Comcast to officially secure Sky it will have to gain approval of 50% of shareholders. Fox/Disney currently owns 39% of the business and is yet to disclose what its own position will be, meaning Comcast will have to convince 82% of the remaining shareholders to be safe. Due to the Fox/Disney 39% stake, de-listing Sky will be an unlikely outcome (75% threshold is needed), as will squeezing out remaining shareholders (90% ownership is required). 21st Century Fox could remain a thorn in Comcast’s side for some time.

Another question worth considering is what to do with the Sky telco business. Comcast’s intentions in acquiring Sky have been clear; it is Europe’s most powerful content business; though the telco business comes with this prize. Sky certainly has a notable broadband business in the UK (roughly 6 million subscriptions) and has successfully launched its own MVNO, though it is currently unclear whether this is an area Comcast would like to develop or whether it will look for a sale.

According to RBC Capital Markets, an acquirer would have to shell out in the region of £4.5 billion to purchase the Sky telco business, though there do not seem to be many suitors. BT, Virgin Media and TalkTalk are too large for antitrust approval, leaving only O2 and Three in the telco space. Considering the precarious financial position of O2’s parent company Telefonica, and recent comments from CEO Mark Evans dismissing the convergence craze, O2 seems unlikely.

Like O2, Three has a large mobile business but no presence in the broadband space; a converged offer would be of interest to cash-conscious consumers. It is unknown whether Three parent company Hutchison would want to pursue this avenue, though considering it has begrudgingly spent and cash in the past, instead trying to use political influence to better Three’s prospects (it has a reputation as a moany, spoilt child for a reason), we can’t see this as realistic.

The only other option which would be on the table would be a player from the financial market, though RBC Capital Markets feels Comcast will retain the telco business without expanding it to the continent. Sky is demonstrating the convergence business model can work, and it is an important aspect of the offering in customer eyes; why would it want to undermine a healthy position. As the old Bert Lance motto goes, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.

The auctions bring to close a long-running chapter in the European content game, but this is by no means the end of the story. With its 39% stake in the business, 21st Century Fox can still be a prominent character.

Sky convinces Netflix to do the thinkable: move titles off its platform

Having initially announced a tie-up earlier this year, Sky has somehow managed to convince Netflix to loosen the grip on customer experience, integrating its biggest titles into a very chunky on-demand package.

As part of the partnership, Netflix content will be hosted on the Sky platform, allowing customers to access a huge number of on-demand titles without having to navigate between different streaming apps. Having to navigate through different windows to find the right content can be a frustration for consumers which Sky is certainly addressing, though it does seem to contradict the Netflix ambition to standardise customer experience across all platforms and partnerships.

Across one page users will be able to navigate through Sky’s content such as Patrick Melrose and Tin Star, HBO’s Game of Thrones, Showtime’s Billions and now, Netflix titles such as The Crown, Stranger Things, The Kissing Booth, Making a Murderer and Queer Eye. It’s a lot of quality content for one place, cementing Sky’s position as the UK’s king of content.

“Sky wants to position itself as an aggregator of services as underlined by recent tie-ups, bringing services together is to be offer users a seamless and integrated service experience,” said independent telco and tech analyst Paolo Pescatore. “Therefore, the move further increases Sky’s own value as a one stop shop provider. More importantly it will also get access to Netflix’s catalogue and metadata which will prove more attractive to Disney.”

“Europe lags the US when it comes to cord cutting due to numerous reasons. Among other things the pay TV penetration is a lot lower in Europe and has been dominated by a handful of players. However, both regions are seeing huge growth in binge watching driven by changing user behaviour towards on demand programming.”

The mega on-demand deal will cost £10 a month, alongside a Sky Q subscription, with a 31-day rolling contract available as an option. It might be more expensive than a normal Netflix subscription, but with Sky’s box set content available for £5 a month, professional bingers will be able to save money combining the pair.

Sky Netflix

While this is a massive coup for Sky, it is a strange turn of events for Netflix. Last week at IBC 2018, Maria Ferreras, VP of EMEA Business Development at Netflix, stated that while the business was open to partnerships the experience would remain consistent across all platforms and partnerships. In allowing Sky to host its programming on its own content platform, Netflix has essentially handed over the management of customer experience. It’s an interesting announcement with Ferreras insisting maintaining a high-quality and standardized experience across all platforms was critically important for the business.

That said, another ambition of the business is to make its content as accessible as possible. Improving accessibility is one aspect of the strategy to secure additional subscriptions as the growth rate looks like it is beginning to wobble. Perhaps this is simply a compromise. As growth momentum slows executives have to make difficult decisions, some of which they will not like, and maybe this is one. The drive for new subscriptions seems to outweigh owning the customer experience.

Now before anyone gets too excited about this being a possibility for every content platform, this will probably not be the case. Ferreras highlighted last week that each partnership is weighed on its own individual merit. There are frameworks in place to guide the parameters of each relationship, though the end product will entirely depend on who is sitting on the opposite side of the table.

Taking this an example, Netflix might have been happy to hand over the customer experience management because Sky has an excellent content platform which it has spent years honing; it is a solid experience with content easy to find. Others cannot say the same, take Virgin Media for example. We cannot imagine Netflix would allow a similar integration of content due to the cumbersome nature of the TV offering.

The search for new subscriptions will certainly take Netflix into some interesting partnerships. After the last quarter’s results, were subscription growth looked to stagger, there might be more pressure for executives to loosen the stranglehold on the platform, and be more flexible when it is discussing partnerships. Netflix still has the upper-hand when it comes to negotiations, though if it wants to maintain its lofty market cap ($152 billion!!!) it will have to be more pliable. Offering more access to its valuable customer data and behaviour insight could be one of those areas.

Ofcom ponders how to rid the internet of horridness

Nobody’s in favour of censorship but freedom comes at a price, right? This is essentially the premise for a new Ofcom discussion paper on online content.

Entitled ‘Addressing harmful online content’, the document has been published alongside some research specially commissioned into people’s concerns about online content. Its stated aim is to initiate a public conversation about this stuff but it gives the impression of trying to set the course of that debate in the direction of greater regulation and censorship.

The tension between security and freedom is as old as civilization and there are some standard techniques for persuading people to surrender their autonomy. A word currently in vogue is ‘harm’, which has the benefits of being emotive, universally disapproved of and yet broad enough to be subject to constant redefinition. If you can get people to agree that harm must be opposed then you can establish consensus on anything else so long as you position it in opposition to harm.

If harm alone isn’t emotive enough then it’s just a simple matter of determining the freedom you want to take away is harmful to children, and this is where many arguments in favour of regulating the internet start. Also likely to make an early appearance are ‘but’ phrases such as ‘the internet offers many benefits but…’ or ‘freedom of speech is important but it comes with responsibilities.’

The Ofcom discussion document is no different, but (you see, it’s easily done) it does appear to aspire to some degree of balance and thoroughness. After the standard preamble about how children need to be protected from horridness online (which is hard to disagree with, the question is how), it notes that regular broadcast TV is a lot more regulated than online platforms like YouTube.

Ofcom broadcast regulation table

The stuff about the BBC is irrelevant as it’s tax-funded and thus subject to a unique level of state interference. Ofcom gets to keep an eye on other broadcaster’s catch-up services but has no role in any other online content. IT reckons other online press is regulated by IPSO, which is not even approved as a regulator, and IMPRESS, which is not supported by the press. We can assure you that Telecoms.com has had not contact with either, but perhaps we will after this.

Ofcom also laments the different amounts of regulation a piece of video is subject to depending on how it’s consumed. Live TV gets a lot of oversight, catch-up less so and YouTube none right now. The growing impression is that a lot of this is targeted very specifically at YouTube, which also happens to be where children increasingly go to for video.

Ofcom broadcast regulation table 2

The document then moves on to a cherry-picked selection of anecdotes describing positive outcomes of the kind of regulation it seems Ofcom would like to see more of. In the absence of equivalent negative anecdotes, who can Ofcom expect this to be considered evidence in any honest and rigorous sense of the word?

More balance is shown when the document moves onto the challenges of trying to regulate a platform such as YouTube. They include the scale of the platform, the variety of content on it, the fact that much of it is user-generated and the fact that it’s global. There is also a genuine attempt to explore the dichotomy we flagged up at the start of freedom versus security.

“Another relevant principle is the safeguarding of freedom of expression,” says that passage. This means that people are able to share and receive ideas and information without unnecessary interference, such as excessive regulations or restrictions. When the need to protect audiences from harm comes into tension with the need to preserve free expression, the weight that a regulator places on the two aims reflects the priorities set by Parliament, as well as audiences’ evolving attitudes.

“Depending on the weight attributed in an online context, there is a risk that regulation might inadvertently incentivise the excessive or unnecessary removal of content that limits freedom of speech and audience choice. Such concerns have been raised in the context of the new German law.”

“Our experience in regulating broadcasting shows that while balancing audience protection and freedom of expression is not straightforward, it can be done in a way that is transparent, principles based and fair. Applying this to an online world might translate into greater attention to the processes that platforms employ to identify, assess and address harmful content – as well as to how they handle subsequent appeals.”

A lot of very good points were made by that passage, but the concluding one would seem to fundamentally undermine calls for greater regulation. These platforms (as well as the press) already have loads of processes in place to tackle exactly the harmful stuff Ofcom seems to be worried about. Many would argue YouTube has already gone too far in this respect (albeit mainly to placate advertisers), but in any case doesn’t that render calls for regulation redundant?

Another part of this discussion document that seems somewhat self-defeating is the research. You can see the headline data points below, which seems to indicate the majority of the UK is pretty worried about a bunch of stuff online. This in turn would appear to be a clear call to action for Ofcom and the government to intervene in order to reassure and protect the anxious electorate.

Ofcom survey findings

But when you navigate through the supporting documents you can see a very big gulf between spontaneous and ‘prompted’ responses. It is to Ofcom’s credit that it has been so transparent about the findings, but it must also know that the vast majority of media will simply report the headline figures without nuance or caveat. That sounds dangerously close to the kind of ‘fake news’ that everyone claims to be so worried about online.

Ofcom survey findings prompted

Ofcom survey findings prompted 2

It’s right that Ofcom should take the lead in initiating a (somewhat belated) public discussion on how the wild west of the internet should be approached. But it’s hard to escape the impression that its desired outcome will be new powers and laws that restrict online activity in the name of shielding our delicate, innocent eyes and ears from ‘harm’. If the internet is all about greater choice then shouldn’t we be trusted to decide for ourselves what’s in our own best interests?