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Time to take responsibility in the digital age

Pablo García de Castro and Sofia Zerbino Rachetti *

Español

Traditional industry is competing with non-traditional actors who provide consumers with products or services that serve as substitutes for those offered by the former and erode their incomes…. The regulation of the digital ecosystem (telecommunications, media and content) must focus on generating healthy competition, placing users and the protection of their rights at the center; boosting the quality of services; and safeguarding the privacy and protection of personal data.

The Internet is an omnipresent technology that plays a fundamental role in articulating democratic participation in our respective societies. It is a global superstructure that has redefined the way we communicate and obtain information, how we consume and how we relate to each other. In short, it has modified how we observe and how we are in the world. Given its transformative capacity, we must ensure that the Internet is open, safe, reliable and inclusive. We must move as quickly as possible towards universal access, as there is no greater inequality than the digital divide, which is in turn representative of the poverty gap. The Internet has the potential to drive opportunities and development, but there are threats that require a high degree of responsibility on the part of all stakeholders in the digital ecosystem in order to move towards the desired scenario of a globally connected world in which human rights are respected along with open access to information and knowledge.

The area of information and knowledge, particularly that of the media, has been one of the sectors that has been most impacted since the birth of the digital age. The constant changes in formats, support mechanisms, and forms of distribution and consumption have transformed and re-transformed the media industry. In a single generation we have gone from having a handful of channels on our cathode-ray tube TVs to hundreds of channels –along with other content platforms- all of which we can watch on smart televisions, tablets or mobile phones. We have also shifted from the cassette to music on demand, passing through CDs, MP3s, and even the reappearance of vinyl records. Meanwhile, radio has reinvented itself and we have witnessed the birth of the Internet and social networks; while information is no longer just the lunchtime news bulletin and has turned into a constant flow based on each consumer’s tastes. The unidirectional hypodermic needle or magic bullet of the first studies of mass communication carried out a century ago have made way for a menu with more decision-making spaces for users.

However, such rapid technological changes have also been accompanied by other transformations that have fragmented the consensus that we used to believe in. The media, positioned as a fourth estate, occupied a space of control for the political elite, to which we outsourced the function of telling ourselves the history of the present. Such media outlets became large companies, supported by marketing schemes that made them solid and stable, with a huge support foundation: advertising. However, in recent years the arrival of digital media has led to a disruptive change in this ecosystem, absorbing a large part of the advertising revenues (its market share doubled between 2009 and 2015, and continues to grow). The arrival of digital media has reduced costs and democratized access to discourse; however, it has also generated, on the one hand, the creation of large global platforms – the majority based in the United States – that have concentrated the market, especially in some of its segments; and on the other, a hyper-segmentation of small digital media that filters debates and has caused a bubble effect, where we listen less to those who think differently and which has led to greater polarization, especially in social networks. Furthermore, media professionals have also witnessed a deterioration in their working conditions during this period.

The impacts of such digital transformations have transcended the field of ICTs, producing disruptive changes in many other sectors. The combination and intelligent use of digital technologies such as IoT, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Big Data and 5G have facilitated the creation of a content ‘prosumer’ (an individual who produces and consumes), although this also applies to sectors such as energy, transport/mobility, XaaS, and banking. What we once knew as the traditional trade of goods and services has been thrown off balance due to the disruptive entry of a new player: electronic commerce, which has been rapidly gaining ground. The traditional industry is competing with non-traditional actors that provide consumers with products or services that are substitutes for those offered by the former and thus erode their income. The erroneously named «collaborative economy» has led to positive and innovating changes in many areas, but it is also undermining labor rights acquired over the course of decades.

Two sides of the same coin

We are in the midst of an era of multiple transformations. These may bring important benefits for citizens, but they also carry risks in terms of public debate, the labor market or even people’s integrity. The same happens with elements that generate such broad consensus as Democracy itself: although, and despite its shortcomings, are we capable of denying its benefits? The Internet is no different. We must be aware of its risks and deficiencies regarding which we must act to ensure a reliable and fair network. Internet undoubtedly acts as an articulator of participation and as a democratizing force in terms of access to information and knowledge. However, this also entails an enormous responsibility on the part of all stakeholders in order to maximize the capacity to generate a safe, competitive and innovative environment in which users can freely choose. In this sense, converging regulation of the digital ecosystem (telecommunications, media and content) must focus on generating a healthy competition, placing at the center users and the protection of their rights; boosting the quality of services, and safeguarding the privacy and protection of personal data.

Signor Matiste: What will the people think?
Charles Foster Kane: I am an authority on what the people will think”. .(1)

This quote from the classic film «Citizen Kane» tells us that attacks and abuses against the public, who are the consumers of news, have always existed. Is the Internet the real problem? As Argentine researcher Martín Becerra points out, we must distinguish between the «fake news» that always existed and the danger of disinformation that is voluntarily disseminated for specific purposes. We need a large dose of honesty and responsibility for all of us, whether it is the traditional or digital media, and communicators in all areas of society (not just media journalists), as well as owners and those who create companies and internet platforms, as well as new technologies, along with public institutions, and of course users themselves. In this respect, education will play a key role in moving past this adolescent stage of the digital age. For this stage should give way to a new moment of responsibility that counteracts phenomena such as post-truth and disinformation. In this sense, the agreements between political parties, journalists, the media and Internet intermediaries have been inspiring in terms of a «Digital Ethical Commitment», as promoted in Argentina by the National Electoral Chamber, or the «Ethical Pact against Disinformation» that was signed in Uruguay following a campaign by the Press Association.

We live in a digital age, and it is also an age of responsibility. It is up to each one of us from our respective positions and to the extent that we can act, but together, to direct the course of technological transformations towards social progress and the reduction of inequality. Responsible use and consumption and maintaining an active and conscious role are the greatest guarantees for pluralism, which can be achieved with the committed participation of all social stakeholders.

* Media officers of the Inter-American Association of Telecommunications Companies (Asociación Interamericana de Empresas de Telecomunicaciones – ASIET).

1 Extract from the film Citizen Kane by Orsen Wells (1941).

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