For fear of not being attractive to young viewers who prefer internet movies over television, the public broadcaster prefers sorry television entertainment to journalistic depth. In recent weeks there has been a lot of commotion over the Dutch public broadcaster, which broadcasts TV programs like Other times at Checkout marginalize in favor of Showcolade. But it’s still about continuing to connect people to the media of television, and too little is being invested in safeguarding public space online. We need to talk about the role of public service broadcasting in the 21st century. Unfortunately, there is not yet a current vision of digitization in the public media system.
What information is in the public interest and where can it be found? How to organize the public debate without manipulating the algorithms leading to polarization? How are people of all ages involved? And when does the power of tech giants get too great in our democracy? These questions merge when we examine public service broadcasting in an increasingly digital world. There is no clear idea of the need to contribute to the development of a secure digital public domain. If digitization continues to increase, without there being a clear perception of the public task of the NPO in this area, it would undermine the right to exist of the public broadcaster. This is why we are taking a step here for an active vision of the implementation of the public and democratic role in a digitizing world.
Public broadcasting is still too trapped in an outdated framework: making and distributing television and radio productions. It focuses on transmission and less on interaction. Meanwhile, there is hardly an online environment without commerce where attractive content is offered to young people. They find their salvation on TikTok and Snapchat, not only for watching videos, but also for creating and sharing them.
At the mercy of commercial platforms
The ‘new’ framework – now almost thirty years old – is that the internet makes it possible for everyone content can create, individuals, organizations and professionals: the so-called user generated content. Unfortunately, only the commercial parties built the platforms for this, which meant that people and their privacy were banned. Because public broadcasters have not taken the responsibility of contributing to a large online platform, nor encouraged by politicians, everyone is now at the mercy of commercial platforms. A nightmare scenario.
The public broadcaster must make the radical choice to help build and fill a public space online. Either way, it needs to stop facilitating the same privacy-violating surveillance technology that the Big Tech parties do. Visitors to the public broadcaster’s websites are tracked by cookies. Anyone who watches the news or a program online will find enthusiastic suggestions for sharing NOS news on Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp. Under every episode and every fragment on Uitzending Gemist (NPO Start), the internet user is encouraged to link on the giants of social media.
You will find videos on YouTube Sunday with Lubach on – these are some of the most viewed Dutch music videos. It makes sense that the programs created are also offered online. But by not doing this on a public online platform, the hijacking of the own audience is made easier, while no responsibility is taken to protect people from the data-intensive practices of social media giants. Precisely because young minors prefer to spend time on the Internet rather than watching television, the protection of their privacy and data is extremely delicate. It can and should be done differently.
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In the meantime, the democratic debate no longer feeds only on information disseminated by the media. On social media, all the data that a person leaves behind while scrolling, surfing, ordering, searching and browsing is stored and exchanged. With all this data, user profiles are created, on which political or apolitical advertisements are precisely matched to the decimal point. These individualized advertisements reach the user through what is called “microtargeting”. If a public broadcaster wants to make sense of a genuinely public function online, they must abandon this type of data collection. No cookies, no trackers and no referrals to advertising companies masquerading as social media platforms.
In addition to educating people about the impact of technology with relevant programs, such as Backlight, the public broadcaster can contribute to the development of a different digital space on the basis of public values such as accessibility, inclusiveness and pluralism. The public broadcaster is first and foremost an organization with the size and scope to share responsibility for public and non-commercial online platforms, instead of extradition to Silicon Valley. You can add your own programs but also other relevant programs content museums, universities, libraries, social organizations and young designers to find a new home accessible online.
Initiatives such as PublicSpaces, in which all kinds of public organizations join forces to reclaim the Internet for the common good, deserve more support. They aspire to a decentralized, pluralist but also self-managed platform. The Thorp social platform, which offers an alternative to WhatsApp, is one example. Collaboration is essential to reach scale and invest in the transition to a technological set and a range of content, which does justice to civil liberties. It also requires something from the government. The new cabinet to be formed will have to invest in the development of the digital public domain.
Young people will no longer be reached without a new, clear vision of digitization. And all viewers are needlessly extradited to the revenue models of America’s big data giants. Creating a safe place is essential to ensure that a diverse range of services reach people of all ages. A public broadcaster that gets lost in discussions about which programs can and cannot stay loses its legitimacy. By embracing digitization and choosing a strategic position, it can help build a public, digital and democratic space and thus regain its relevance.
A version of this article was also published in NRC Handelsblad on May 22, 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of May 22, 2021.