Regular readers know I spend a lot of time blogging about the changing relationships between intellectual property and electronic communications. “Yeah, I noticed, but what has it got to do with revenue assurance?” I hear some of you saying in response. Well, the way I see it, the question of who is responsible for censoring and controlling the content of messages that are distributed electronically is of vital importance to the future of the revenue assurance. The “problem” with the revolution taking place in electronic communications is that it makes it very easy to copy and distribute other people’s property. We are now seeing a rash of legal cases that will test who will be held responsible when somebody illegally copies intellectual property and distributes it electronically. Google vs. Viacom is the latest to hit the courts. The question in that case – whether Google’s YouTube does too little to prevent copyright infringement in order to aid its profits – is pretty much the same as in other cases like Universal vs. MySpace. Probably we will not get a completely clear judgment from the courts. Instead, expect the two corporate giants to fudge out an agreement that sees Viacom slightly better off and Google trying a bit harder to stop copyright abuse. But the legal principles are important. We do not hold Cannon or the Post Office responsible if somebody uses a photocopier to copy books and then snail mails the copies to friends. On the other hand, we do sometimes hold a television channel responsible for what content gets broadcast, even when we know they are just reproducing what people have freely chosen to say. A good example is the furore over the allegedly racist comments made on Celebrity Big Brother. However, there is something of a double standard at play here: news coverage is allowed to reproduce all sorts of content, as long as presented in a suitably serious tone. On the other hand, big companies that like to present themselves as champions of free speech have no problem with adjusting their offering to suit censorious governments like that in China. There have been big stories about both Google and NewsCorp’s MySpace in the Chinese market, but only cursory attention is given to the moral implications of working with an oppressive government to control free speech. As usual, it is left to bloggers like this guy to point out the detail of how big corporations keep the right side of the Chinese government. Few seem to be willing to say out loud one rather obvious but chilling thought. Instead of opening up freedom of speech in China, as most of the free world seems to think would be a good idea, the big corporations are developing an effective mechanism to limit freedom of speech which could easily be copied in the West. But nobody complains because there is a lot of money at stake. And that, sadly, is just as much the moral of the story with sideshows like Google vs. Viacom. Both sides will push for an outcome that gives the best financial result, and will end up with a compromise as a result.
So coming back to revenue assurance, censorship is likely to end up being the preserve of revenue assurance. If not, it will need to be done by another function that will end up having remarkably similar tools and skills to those used for revenue assurance, so at the very least it makes sense to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort. The reason why people are not clear on the implications for revenue assurance, and the broader implications, is because the problem is new. Nobody has had to decide before about how to control freedom of speech on such a wide scale before. Anyone can cheaply and easily communicate with millions around the world like never before in history; though most of us are happy with our more modest regular readership ;). The rules for control used to be easy: put lots of effort into controlling the outlets that are expensive and distributed to many, put little or no effort into the outlets that are cheap but reach few. Now we have cheap outlets that reach many, as exemplified by YouTube and MySpace. So somebody has to monitor and limit the content being sent around for financial reasons, at the very least. This kind of revenue assurance might be executed by the distributor, like YouTube, as a defensive mechanism to prevent further law suits and damages, or it might be executed by the content owners, like Viacom, as a proactive weapon to prevent revenue leakage from copyright abuse. But one way or another, it will come down to automatically scouring for inappropriate content so it can be censored. The fly in the ointment is that whether the reason for censorship is financial, legal, moral or political, the techniques employed are going to be just the same.
Thanks to Nixon Wampamba of Cape Advise for keeping me abreast of Google vs. Viacom.