By Kalinga Seneviratne*
BANGKOK (IDN) - The information and communication technology (ICT) sector is undergoing a period of major transition, changing the way we communicate with each other. These technologies are introducing new players to the industry, challenging traditional business models and regulatory frameworks.
IDN’s Kalinga Seneviratne spoke to Dr Rohan Samarajiva, a former telecom regulator in Sri Lanka, at the ITU Telecom World 2012 event in Bangkok in November 2013. Samarajiva is a professor of Communication and Public Policy at Ohio State University in the U.S. and the founding Chair of LIRNEasia (Learning Initiatives on Reforms for Network Economies Asia), an ICT policy and regulation think tank active across emerging economies in South and South East Asia, and the Pacific. He was its CEO until 2012.
Seneviratne: When radio and television came, the concept of public service broadcasting (PSB) arrived and in most countries the government became the only investor in the sector and thus monopolized the airwaves. Today, with the arrival of ICTs, the argument is that governments should not play a role in this sector, especially as operators and content providers. Do you agree with this view?
Rohan Samarajiva: I have been a former regulator and never worked for private sector in my life, even in the U.S. I taught at a State University. We have done this experiment before, having government supply telecom services (and) it has been (an) absolute miserable failure. It is only when institutions like World Bank stopped giving governments money, and instead gave money to reform sectors and allowed competition to come in, that there is this explosion not only about mobile telephony, but also in fixed telephony. Governments should play a regulatory role and multiple private entities should provide the services, both infrastructure and applications and contents over the infrastructure.
Seneviratne: Should'nt governments come in as regulator of contents, since there are issues related to cybersecurity, and also certain contents accessed by children, etc?
Samarajiva: . . . for long telecom (industry) was talking about pipes. We didn't care what went through the pipes, but regulated the pipes ... when I was a telecom regulator, I didn't think of myself as engaged in contents regulation. (But) now people are talking about someone needing to look at contents. We have to first look at the fundamental basis of regulation. One is in infrastructure industry, drinking water, transport, electricity, and telecom where we have very imperfect competitive markets and where market fervor has to be controlled. That is the basis of telecom regulation. So everything comes from that economic logic.
The second logic is what you find in banking and insurance – if you are in insurance which is going to give me money in 20 years how do I know if this company is still there in 20 years? That is a different kind of regulation. When it comes to contents it's a very different area and we have seen how governments, instead of trying to do good through contents regulation, have done bad.
Then you have to ask the question how to minimise the chances of them being bad. There you have to develop a coherent basis ... based on negative externalities . . . children for example cannot enter into contracts and what contents are suitable for them or not. So we've had certain regulation for that ... it needs to be more technological regulation, rather than some bureaucrat seated in an office and deciding what website is suitable or not.
Seneviratne: At ITU there was this controversy on the alleged attempts to regulate the Internet (see http://www.indepthnews.info/index.php/global-issues/1264-battle-for-internet-control-looms-over-itu-meet). How do you see the issue now?
Samarajiva: I was commenting on the specific area, which was about charging for contents. The proposal was made by the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO). They couldn't get it through their own countries but managed to get it through African and Middle Eastern groups. But their language failed, hopefully I like to think the language was essentially saying that any network that supplied to a mother network had to pay for it. This sounds innocent enough, but what it really means is, you sitting here in Bangkok send a small amount of data asking for a YouTube video. That’s a small data query to US, but the response will be a large amount of data that would come from US to the Thai network that you are connected through, so that you will see that video.
The question is, why US network should pay the Thai network for something that you as a customer of the Thai network asked for. It doesn't seem logical. It’s not only illogical, it’s outright harmful in the sense that US network – or nobody knows where these networks are, YouTube can be anywhere in the world – and that network would say: why do you pay for this? Even if it is feasible, YouTube will say: This man in Thailand is a poor man; he is not giving me advertising revenues, Thailand is not a very profitable advertising market for me, I will not be bothered. They will cut off Thailand from YouTube.
That is what you call the Balkanisation of the Internet. I took a very personal angle to it, because back in 1985, I came back after my PhD and was trying to develop a consulting business in Sri Lanka. I feared running a knowledge based business sitting in a Third World country because of lack of information. The way you work as knowledge producers has completely transformed as a result of the Internet. Part of that is because the Internet allows seamless and mostly free access to enormous amount of information that is out there.
This proposal would have stopped all that, because to take all that information behind pay-walls where we will have to pay with credit cards or it could have balkanized us, where entire regions would have been excluded from free contents. And the worse part of it is that my own information, because I run a think-thank and as a principle everything we produced is free of charge on our website, we don’t know even where we park this information, we park it anywhere where we can buy service base. What will happen is, I will have to pay to get my own information if this proposal went through. That’s why we fought it. We were very happy it was defeated.
Seneviratne: YouTube and Google use our contents for free and make billions of dollars. Shouldn’t they pay contents providers something?
Samarajiva: I have a colleague Nalaka Gunawardena who does a lot of videos of what we do. We pay him for making the video. It’s quality development journalism (and) we could keep them on DVDs and decorate our walls or whatever. Instead, we put it on YouTube and we are always impressed by the fact that somebody allows us a platform to put our information on so that any user, who would like to use our information, could retrieve it under his or her condition, and someone has given a free facility to do so. Way I look at YouTube is that, which is, why the hell are they spending money to help me to put my information?
You put to me a different question - why they don't pay me money to take my information? This is a complete business model issue ...Google’s business model around YouTube (is that) they are monetising 10 to 15 percent of the contents that a lot of people watch, which can be accompanied by advertising. They have figured it out and let them do that. We didn’t figure it out. If I wanted to get advertising revenues from my videos, I can put it on my website and if I can attract large numbers that come to mine through YouTube, I can make some advertising revenue too. So I don't see a problem. I put it out there willingly and anytime I can take it off.
*Kalinga Seneviratne is IDN Special Correspondent for Asia-Pacific. He teaches international communications at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. [IDN-InDepthNews – January 05, 2014]