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How has the development of the Internet affected media regulation?
Media regulation is defined as the guidance or control of mass media by watchdogs and government via procedures, rules and laws in order to protect the public interest (Feintuck & Varney, 2006). It is commonly associated with print and broadcast news sources but the parameters of regulation have been continuously tested in recent years as a direct result of the development and exponential growth of the Internet and the new media that has emerged from it. Traditionally regulation of the media has occurred within a framework that incorporates models of self-regulation and government policy whilst maintaining the idea that freedom of expression is a fundamental human right that should be respected and even nurtured by the media in democratic nations (Fourie, 2010). However, the development of the Internet has raised questions of this particular framework, such as its relevance to new media and its ability to govern an international rather than domestic entity, by adding another highly modern element to a diverse and increasingly colourful media. This essay will examine how the development of the Internet has affected media regulation by examining the theory concerning media regulation, the practical regulation and policy in place and how adequate it is for the Internet, and finally the arguments in favour of further development of regulation because of the development of the Internet and new media. This will be done with a view to concluding that the Internet has affected media regulation in that it has created a need for change in existing regulation, which has actually changed very little in terms of its practical application and is simply not sufficient enough to meet the challenges that the global and open nature of the Internet poses.
Media theory incorporates ideas concerning policy, regulation and accountability and is vital in facilitating the identification of points at which the development of the Internet fits into or challenges the current regulatory framework. For example, although his work was published prior to the advent of the Internet, Habermas’s (1992) theory of discourse principle assumes that procedure may be linked with context so that all individuals can participate in a free and rational discourse that is legitimate and formative in terms of creating a consensus. Although relatively general in nature, this particular element of theory identifies the need for freedom for the media to provide disparate expressions and enduring debate on specific issues. This theory is applicable to the Internet as well as the media in general and this suggests that its remit fits into the applicable democratic media regulatory framework. Furthermore, Kogut (2004) places the development of the Internet firmly in the economic sphere and suggests that its rapid growth was a direct result of the globalisation of finance, trade and corporate governance. This implies that its role as a media platform was a secondary outcome of its development and therefore offers some explanation as to why a regulatory framework was not established from the outset. Both of these theoretical perspectives, or the application of the theory in the case of Habermas, acknowledge that the growth of the Internet was not anticipated and has not impacted upon ideas of what media regulation should be. The theory also explains a lack of immediate regulation to accommodate the changing nature of communication. However, it is necessary to look at the regulation and ideas in place in order to assess these points further.
Some critics and academics draw parallels with media regulation and Internet regulation, thus suggesting that the development of the latter has not impacted upon regulation to any great degree but instead has provoked slight changes to accommodate the new medium. For example, Price and Verhulst (2004) acknowledge that there was a negotiation between self-regulatory bodies and government in the early years of the Internet, which suggests that the patterns of media regulation have changed very little if at all. They go on to note that the Internet does actively limit the ability of self-regulation and government to be effective and so it is necessary for the application of both to be pursued to ensure that the new global form of communication adheres to the issue of public interest to the greatest possible extent (Price & Verhulst, 2004). Tambini et al (2008) concur, noting that the application of the classic model of self-regulation works in much the same way as it does in other sectors of the media with the same debates over accountability, responsibility and liberty. Although they go on to argue that the continued development of the Internet does incorporate significant public interest and policy issues that necessitate closer control than would be possible with slight tweaks in existing government policy and self-regulation (Tambini et al, 2008). These perspectives are based upon the idea that self-regulation is adequate despite the fact that electronic media is so different to traditional media platforms. The fact that these arguments so extensively discuss self-regulation demonstrates that media regulation as a whole has actually changed very little, with only slight shifts occurring between the balance of self-regulation and government policy to cover matters of public interest.
However, despite the fact that there are extensive debates as to the extent that self-regulation should be operational within the new media sphere, Mitra (2001, p. 415) has noted that the development of the Internet has had a tangible impact on media regulation:
…the regulatory landscape in which the Internet will develop is vastly different from the one that nurtured broadcast and cable television. Instead of providing a check on economic forces, regulations will largely open the door to them. This is because the rationales used by the Supreme Court in upholding electronic media regulations are largely inapplicable in the context of the Internet.
The inadequacy of the media policy and regulation in place has also given rise to arguments in favour of enhancement of the regulatory framework of the media. For example, prior to the development of the Internet, policy and regulation was based upon certain issues that provided concern to the media and its impact upon society as a whole. These fell into two distinct categories – public and private. Issues of public concern include the maintenance of public order and the promotion of the public interest whilst private concerns include protecting individual and property rights as well as avoiding personal harm (Iosifidis, 2013). Building upon this, there are voluntary codes of conduct that journalists adhere to in terms of their work in print and that placed online but Lambert (2005, p. 170) stresses that these codes are not adopted by all bloggers online: “Standard journalistic practice, for example, requires facts to be double checked and gives people who are criticised by a story a right to reply. Blogs have no such standards.” Indeed, there is very little policy to govern conduct in advance; there is only legal recourse should an individual, company or collective feel slighted after the event. In essence, media regulation has not evolved to adequately cover the public interest and private protection of individual rights by compelling all publishers of news content, or other content that falls within the media sphere, to adhere to ethical ideals to the extent that journalists affiliated with publications or media outlets have to. As the existing regulation does not provide sufficient coverage there is a deficit that has yet to be addressed domestically and internationally.
As the components of the media are perceived as national institutions rather than global entities, which is a major principle that the development of the Internet challenges as a result of the expanding reach of online media sources, there is a distinct absence of international systems of control (Weber, 2010; Drezner, 2008). In fact, there are no international laws or established bodies that oversee global governance of the media as a whole. Instead, there are multiple bodies, like the World Trade Organisation, the World Intellectual Property Organisation and the European Commission, that have authority in specific mediums, geographical contexts or as an extension of an economic interest but can do little to regulate the global exchange of information that the Internet facilitates (Siochru, Girard & Mahan, 2002). In this respect, the impact of the Internet on media regulation in a global context has been incredibly limited and it appears that this may remain the case in immediate future. There are disparities between media regulations in various countries that pose a major problem in encouraging international law to tackle the global nature of the Internet and the content posted on it. For example, in China there has been the vigorous pursuit of Internet regulation via extensive blocking and censorship in order to limit democratic freedoms and enhance the power of the authoritarian regime (Tai, 2013). In the United States, on the other hand, the First Amendment of the Constitution ensures freedom of speech and so little has been done to regulate online communications either via policy or via legal challenge through the Supreme Court (Fetzer & Yoo, 2013). These two nations occupy opposing ends of the domestic regulatory spectrum and so the likelihood of mediating the two positions in an international context is low. As such, despite the need for international regulation, the development of the Internet has not encouraged comprehensive international media regulation.
In conclusion, the analysis of the impact that the development of the Internet has had on media regulation raises two clear points. The first is that there has been very little in terms of practical regulatory changes aside from recommendations to enhance regulation on a domestic and an international level. Many of the policies that deal with regulation of the media are domestic in nature and so do not have the reach to address pages that appear on the Internet from different countries. There are also voluntary codes of conduct that journalists in other mediums abide by but are ignored by individuals online. Despite this, there have been very few new measures implemented to regulate the media despite the development of the Internet. The second point is that there is a definite need for regulation given the challenges that the nature of the Internet poses to the existing framework. Although theories that suggest self-regulation is sufficient may be effective in some sections of the media, the need to provide oversight in a global environment with few restrictions is extensive and beyond current parameters. Self-regulation may work with the ethical code accepted by journalists and professionals who work within the media industry, with some notable exceptions in recent years, but it is not sufficient to constrain individuals who have access to the Internet and the ability to post content at will. In this respect, the Internet has undoubtedly created a need for a fundamental change within the existing regulatory framework as that is simply not able to meet the challenges that the global and open nature of the Internet poses. There is a need to tackle the regulation of new media and this may need to be done via international law or policy. However, there is absolutely no doubt that the development of the Internet has affected media regulation to a great extent.
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