A couple of weeks ago, the authority that oversees broadcast licensing in Germany concluded that internet streaming services should be subject to the same licensing imposed on broadcast radio and television.
This will be a test case for the entire world as governments and tax authorities realize they are missing out on license fees and the ability to regulate to these services. In the end, it’s a money grab and a potential censorship mechanism. What engrained power structure could resist?
We’ve Been Here Before
In the early 1900s there was a radio craze not unlike the personal computer revolution of the 70s and 80s. Hobbyist magazines quickly evolved into a commercial enterprise. When broadcasters utilizing the few available frequencies began interfering with each other, though, things got a little messy. By 1927, the Radio Act started licensing frequencies and mildly regulating radio broadcasters. In the 1930s, this evolved into the Federal Communications Commission.
The idea was to prevent interference between channels, but it also imposed control over content and imposed fees, of course. It’s the way any limited resource evolves: It goes from the Wild West to mild control to a full-blown money-making enterprise. Money for the government, that is.
Parking is a perfect example of this. When meters first emerged, they charged a penny for the maintenance of the timers (still in use in part of Illinois). But someone got the bright idea of using parking meters as profit centers; in places where parking is in short supply, like San Francisco, meters now take credit cards and mobile payments, and it costs much more than a penny.
The same thing happened to broadcasting; what was once free can now cost thousands of dollars for an application fee alone. Streaming is just another way to broadcast, and there is money to be made.
The FCC has long been trying to sink its claws into cable TV, which is not subject to the same rules and regulations as broadcast TV. One rationale used to explain the differences between TV and cable is that one is open and free to public viewing and the other is not. There is a cable or sat-TV gatekeeper and a fee to access this content. It’s like a private club.
But does the same distinction exist for internet broadcasting? At this point, the thinking is the internet is closer to being wide open, at least more so than cable TV. There are some blurred lines, yes, because you also have a gatekeeper and fees. But with a lot of free Wi-Fi and access at many places of business, it is closer to being like broadcasting in its ubiquity.
Furthermore, cable gatekeepers also control the content. You pay so much and you get certain channels as part of a package. With the internet, you just pay an access fee and you can access the whole net, where there are free streaming radio and TV programs that look a lot like a broadcast.
One could argue that these streaming shows and entire networks of shows are just using the internet to bypass broadcasting regulations and licensing requirements. This is all further compounded by the fact that the net neutrality folks are almost begging the FCC to take control of the internet.
It’s apparent to me that the German trial balloon will get support, especially from licensed broadcasters that have to jump through hoops and pay plenty of fees already. Then it will not take long to spread. The joke to me is that licensing began as a way to prevent interference within a limited bandwidth. Control was necessary. On the web, there is an infinite playing field and no broadcast-level interference issue beyond network congestion.
But let’s be quiet about that and start working on the fee schedule and the collection mechanism for the eventual money grab.