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Challenges and opportunities for freedom of expression in the networked environment

1.3 Policy Principles: What attributes should each layer of the networked environment have to create public interest communicati

info: Submitted by Lisa Horner on Thu, 2008-05-29 16:44.

The objective of these policy principles is to realise the public interest values (defined above) at each of the four ‘layers’ of the communications environment. The layer model is a useful way of defining and locating policy issues within communications environments, whilst at the same time recognising that policy designed to address an issue at one layer will affect other sections of the environment. However, these conceptual layers are broad and overlapping, and many public interest issues require coordinated policy making across several or all of the layers.

The policy principles defined here are designed to be technology and context neutral. Communications technologies and the ways they are used are continuing to evolve rapidly. We cannot possibly predict what communications environments will look like in the future. Public interest policy principles therefore need to be adaptable and applicable in future unknown circumstances. Moreover, communications environments are made up of a wide range of different communications platforms, the use and availability of which varies between regions and countries. For example, analogue radio is currently the dominant means of receiving news and information in most sub-Saharan African countries, whilst television is the dominant medium across much of Europe. The public interest principles therefore need to allow policy makers to address issues that are specific to certain communications platforms and practices, as well as issues that span several platforms within converging communications environments. They should also allow policy makers to address issues that are specific to certain geographic contexts. For example, the policy measures needed in Indonesia to ensure that all people have affordable access to communications will be different from those needed in Brazil. The principles are therefore intended to allow for policy to be tailored to meet specific needs and circumstances, yet always with the common goal of upholding human rights and the public interest.

Market forces are a powerful engine of change within communications environments. The rapid expansion of mobile phone communications across the developing world since the turn of the millennium illustrates the power of the market to innovate and increase access and affordability in unpredictable ways. We believe that market forces, the activity of the business sector in response to consumer demand and need, can be a major vehicle for building public interest communications environments at local and global levels. However, it is vital to recognise that markets are not perfect. There is an important role for regulation to correct market failures and work towards universal access, address natural monopolies, ensure environmental sustainability and balance conflicts of interest between different stakeholders. In this sense, regulation should be permissive rather than precautionary, where possible creating an enabling environment for businesses and users to realise consumer and public value rather than being overly prescriptive and heavy handed.

Many of the policy principles in this document can be realised through ensuring that markets are competitive and not dominated by one or a number of service providers. This approach would give space to business, particularly small and medium sized enterprises, to address problems innovatively and meet consumer demand. However, regulating dominance and competition will not always be sufficient to uphold public interest values. Business strategies that aim to maximise profit and shareholder value will not always align with the public interest and human rights. Regulatory frameworks therefore need to ensure that public interest principles are upheld, and business, government and civil society actors need to work together to identify how this can be achieved.