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Utilitarianism

The implications of utilitarianism on new media policies lead Sama and Shoaf (2002) to believe that dilemmas over the appropriate policies regarding privacy, for example, would lead to the conclusion that the ultimate benefits of a large database outweigh privacy concerns and that dilemmas over copyright will be resolved by an understanding that “giveaways and stealing of rivals’ ideas is justified by the ‘greatest good for greatest number’ rationale” (p. 97). Elliot (2007), for one, believes that “Mill would love the World Wide Web with its conglomerate of varied opinion”

(p. 102).

Indeed, policies focusing on the Internet that developed as a result of its growth as the predominant communications network were designed along utilitarian principles. This can be seen as a consequence of habit— policymakers more often than not base new policies on existing paradigms (Pool, 1984)—or as a deliberate ideological choice. It can also be seen as a missed opportunity to capitalize on the changes in the nature of the media. One example of such a development is that of mobile phone networks. Such networks were almost universally awarded to operators in a licensing scheme that was no different than that which existed in the so-called old media world. The scarcity rationale may have been used as justification and may have even been appropriate when the network was analog, but clearly other models could have emerged when digital technologies were introduced.

One such option, when the mobile device industry emerged, could have been the provision of service by virtual operators over a neutral network. However, by the time the idea of mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) came about, entrenched network operators, more often than not the same legacy operators of fixed networks, controlled the environment and dictated policy. An alternative model in which, for example, a unified network provided access to an infinite number of service providers was never really considered anywhere. Similarly, we have seen such a trend in connection with Internet service providers (ISPs). While at the first commercial steps of Internet access there were a multitude of providers; markets in the USA, the European Union, and Israel, from which we derived the case studies in this book, saw massive consolidation both vertically and horizontally. Justification for the approval of the mergers that led to this reality, which clearly cannot lead to more competition (the purported ideological claim), is more often than not rooted in utilitarian rationalization. This may include language regarding the “health” of the network from end to end (in the case of vertical mergers) or the requirement of “size” either to provide better services or to more effectively or efficiently compete with other growing conglomerates.

But this is true not only regarding scarcity and the inability (or lack of will) to recognize that it is a feature of the past. It is also true of the approach to media content and to social networking applications. In general, policies governing content over the Internet have reflected a hands-off approach. This again is true on both sides of the Atlantic. While unsurprising in the USA, where historically proactive content policies have been rare to nonexistent, it is more distinctly noticeable in Europe, where public service obligations of broadcasters have been the norm for decades. The meaning of this policy choice in the framework of our study is the fact that even though media content has become mobile and interactive, and multimediality is no longer in the hands only of large corporations and government-sanctioned “broadcasters” but also in those of individual users, has gone unnoticed by policymakers. The reason for this development is their fixation on the utilitarian framework.

It is important, though, not to overlook within this context, the general commitment to universal service. Universal service is a policy rooted in the idea of repairing inequalities in access to telecommunications. However, that is also where this policy traditionally stops. It provides access, in a variety of ways, through subsidies and other means, yet the focus is on access, not on the capabilities that the access may provide. And the means for assessing its efficacy is by counting the number of people connected to the network and the speeds at which they are connected. It is neutral as to the use people make of the network. Indeed, staying within the confines of providing maximum utility to the largest number of users has a limited effect.

With regard to policies focusing on social networking applications, those too are rooted in the old media conventions. Without pooh-poohing the importance of overseeing concentration, competition, invasion of privacy, and related phenomena in the name of the public good, limiting the policy conversation to these measures and their extent does not help unleash the powers of contemporary media and put them in the hands of those who may utilize them to better their position in society. One example of such a narrow policy development is what has probably emerged as the most dramatic policy decision of recent years—the institution of “the right to be forgotten” by the European Court of Justice. Indeed, this right has created a traditional balance between privacy concerns and freedom of expression, purportedly a utilitarian solution in which the total happiness has grown, and the largest number of people’s concerns have been addressed; yet in the process, the bigger picture was abandoned—that which sees forgetting as an aspect of remembering as well and which recognizes that memory (the sum of remembering and forgetting), while a component of individual identity, is always part of a larger social context in which the collective has rights as well (Tirosh, 2016).

 
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