A Case for Internet Regulation

4:23 pm - December 4th 2008

by Robert Sharp    

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If, like me, you have a knee-jerk reaction whenever anyone suggests regulating the Internet, this A List Apart article on captioning/subtitling of online videos is a challenging read. Joe Clark argues that the voluntary approach to developing a good, standardized captioning system has failed, and that only governments can enforce some sort of progress:

In short, disabled people’s right to be free of discrimination trumps the belief, however fallacious, that the internet cannot or should not be regulated.

Earlier this year, the Liberal Conspiracy take on Andy Burnham’s recommendations on Internet regulation, was that it was merely a sop to the powerful music lobby and their outdated business models. Contrast this with the case of subtitling, where it is the lack of regulation which has allowed the studios and broadcasters to ignore their obligations to provide accessible content, in favour of greater profit margins.

It was the political concept of ‘accessibility’ that got me interested in web design, and fuels my current love of all things social networky. When we made The Unrecognized, I took particular pride in the subtitling, a project I worked on alone and probably took as long as the edit of the film itself. We were in a sense lucky that the film featured three languages, because it meant that a captioned video was the norm, as Joe Clark now recommends.

The internet can and should be an equalising force, yet for deaf people the online landscape is still an unwelcoming jungle.

Cross-posted at the usual place.

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About the author
Robert Sharp designed the Liberal Conspiracy site. He is Head of Campaigns at English PEN, a blogger, and a founder of digital design company Fifty Nine Productions. For more of this sort of thing, visit Rob's eponymous blog or follow him on Twitter @robertsharp59. All posts here are written in a personal capacity, obviously.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Equality ,Media ,Technology

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Reader comments

My knee is still jerking.

Any sort of regulation increases costs for producers, which will impact disproportionately on small producers, allowing the larger ones more advantages in the market, reducing the overall diversity of content, the best thing going for the internet right now. Regulation would also serve to rule out the development of voluntary solutions and standards which have served many aspects of the internet very well up until now and will continue to develop if we leave it alone – those evolved solutions will turn out to be better than what can be set down in legislation.

Nick, then they need to get on with evolving. How many youtube videos have captions? Barely any of them, I’ll bet.

Knees jerking here, too. It’s an interesting article but it’s utterly unworkable. Adding subtitles to videos takes a lot of work, and any attempt to force everyone uploading to YouTube to do so, for instance, would just mean people stopped uploading to YouTube and went elsewhere.

The article is very English-speaking US-centric, too. It’s all very well to say that videos need subtitles, but a lot of videos already have translation subtitles, so you’d have to have separate files for each translation language and for the transcription language rather than burning the subtitles in to the video. I don’t think there’s an easy way to do that just now, and again, it would massively add to the time needed to make a video and put it online.

I imagine technology for automatic subtitling will be developed in time (at least for relatively high quality audio). But it won’t happen if you shut down all the sites for not fitting one particular disability agenda.

The internet is a case where the concept of negative liberty really proves itself. It has had a chance to develop in a way almost completely free from government regulation, and some pretty eccentric or arbitrary institutions managing it. Why does one charity in the UK manage all the domain names? What gives them the right, some might say? The point is it doesn’t matter: the system emerged spontaneously and the accidental result is that essentially everyone can obtain a domain for relatively little cost, making complete freedom of the press a reality for the first time (something unheard even in theoretical positive rights theories until it started to happened spontaneously). This has already had tremendous benefits in terms of faster, more efficient trading, cheaper goods, access to vastly more information for a huge number of people, all leading to massively greater overall human welfare. And we have only just got started. Negative liberty (freedom from state coercion) created a space that allowed this to happen. And it couldn’t have been predicted by any individual or agency in advance of it happening.

The one thing it isn’t and will never be is entirely equal. Some people will always lack some faculties required to access ALL of the new goods. But everyone will benefit from some of it, and, if it is left alone, more and more people will benefit from more of it.

You might want it to evolve EVEN faster than it is in a perfect world. But if the alternative is bring the hammer of the state down on it, so that it ceases to evolve according to the free actions of individuals in co-operation and competition, then you won’t know what benefits you destroyed – and what extra benefits would eventually have been available to the very people you invoke as deserving of equality right now at this point in time.

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