One less news app: Did BBC's iPad support threaten the EU's 'Digital Agenda?'

Either the news media is convinced that Apple's forthcoming iPad is the vehicle for delivering news publishing out of its funk, or it's convinced that Apple is conspiring to circumvent the natural course of news with its own walled garden platform. In any event, in the portion of the universe where the two parties are evidently not in bed with one another, the BBC reports that it has been forced to indefinitely postpone the rollout of its iPhone/iPod touch/iPad newsreader app, after the EU's trade group for newspapers complained it could pre-empt their plans to migrate online.

Today, the BBC Trust, which sets policy for the Corporation and serves as its board of directors, put a hold on next month's planned release of the BBC news reader, which would have been distributed for free. The BBC is sustained by UK citizens who pay regular license fees, so on paper, the reason for the delay is to determine whether free distribution of the app goes against its mandate.
But BBC News didn't muzzle its own impression of the Trust's intent. In its report this afternoon, it noted the Trust's citation of "representations from industry" as contributing to its postponement decision.

Last month, after the BBC first previewed its iPhone/iPad apps at Mobile World Congress, David Newell, director of Europe's Newspaper Publishers' Association, issued a public statement: "This is not, as the BBC argues, an extension of its existing online service, but an intrusion into a very tightly defined, separate market. Not for the first time, the BBC is preparing to muscle into a nascent market and trample over the aspirations of commercial news providers...We strongly urge the BBC Trust to block these damaging plans, which threaten to strangle an important new market for news and information."

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Two major London newspaper publishers, the Guardian and the Telegraph, had reportedly been working on upgrades to their own iPhone/iPad apps of their own, although they would likely charge for them. Another major paper, the London Times (part of the global News Corp. operation that also runs The Wall Street Journal) recently announced its intention to place exclusive content behind a paywall, where readers will be charged £2 per week for access.

In an online op-ed yesterday, the Times defended its decision, saying it believed true customers will recognize the value of investing in real journalism. However, it could not resist the temptation (the same one that tempts almost all other News Corp. properties to openly taunt its competitors) to throw a zinger at the BBC for its free Web app plans:

We believe many readers will be prepared to pay this relatively small amount because they value our journalism and they understand that nothing of value is free...We acknowledge the risk involved when much other good journalism is still available free online. However, we believe that if we are transparent with our readers and explain the financial realities, they will support our move. Ultimately we think that other newspapers will follow, and that the only free content online will be of inferior quality or supplied by the BBC. Even that organisation is finally beginning to realise it should stop trying to become a publisher online, and is cutting back on its massive internet spending.

That might have been the Times' entire contribution to the debate today, were it not for an insightful comment yesterday from one of its Austria-based readers: "In an EU that is launching a new strategy, EU 2020, which aims at a Digital Agenda to ensure all citizens have access to ICT and become digitally literate, in an EU that needs to act against increasing poverty and social exclusion, in an EU where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening, access to information and education is vital. In a Europe that has lifelong learning as a priority, that wants to be at the competitive edge, access to independent information is crucial...Should those who cannot afford quality papers just be exposed to this type of journalism?"

EU 2020 represents Europe's long-range goals for the economic and social development of the continent. Part of that plan is the Digital Agenda, which now incorporates the continent's equivalent of the US FCC's Broadband Plan, plus the division of government policy that had, under the stewardship of Commissioner Viviane Reding, been called "the Information Society." Today, the commissioner in charge of the Digital Agenda is Neelie Kroes, fresh from the end of her term in charge of competition.

In Comm. Kroes' mandate last November, EC President José Manuel Barroso charged her with no less than the creation of a single market for European online services -- effectively, one level playing field: "I would also like you to establish an integrated single market for the delivery of electronic services. The EU possesses massive creative, cultural and multilingual potential, which efficient ICT tools can help to tap and transform into productivity gains."

Since that time, there's been considerable debate over whether "single market" mandates the existence of a "single platform" -- in other words, not any one manufacturer's walled garden. Who, exactly, has the rights to deliver Europe's single platform, if there is only to be one such platform?

In a speech in January, Comm. Kroes made it clear that she perceived any attempt to divide and conquer the online platform by any one player, as a violation of the principle of net neutrality: ISPs, she said, "shouldn't be allowed to limit the access to service or content out of commercial motivation but only in cases of security issues and spamming."

The organization that represents Europe's many telcos, ETNO, is a cautious supporter of Commission's version of the broadband rollout plan. It believes such a plan could expedite the construction of a single platform, fueled by private investment (as government regulators would prefer), and centering around...naturally, service providers.

Referring to EU 2020, ETNO Director Michael Bartholomew said in a statement last month, "The achievement of these goals will depend to a great extent on the deployment of high speed broadband infrastructure and on the capacity of the private and public sectors to fully exploit the benefits of broadband networks and services. The Digital Agenda could therefore be given greater priority and a horizontal, or cross-sector, role... In order to accelerate private investment in high speed networks, these objectives must be translated into practice by national regulators, under the guidance of the European Commission, by developing a more targeted and proportionate regulatory environment. The rules applying to next generation access networks must reflect the high risks involved as well as vivid competition on today's broadband markets."

The ETNO's viewpoints are not exactly new. So the very next day after Comm. Kroes' speech, it was against that backdrop -- the implication that if you want private interests funding the platform, you must accept private interests running it -- that the European newspaper publishers made their play: In a policy paper (PDF available here), the group argued that newspapers are critical to attaining literacy, and a crucial part of member nations' educational platforms. But that component is under threat from Internet service providers who would undercut their interests by building their own "single platforms" for news dissemination on small devices.

The end result: Online news apps could make Europe's citizens dumber.

ENPA believes that the enhancement of reading skills is closely connected to the issue of media literacy. In the context of the debate launched at European level on media literacy, ENPA has highlighted to EU and national decision makers that newspapers are essential actors of the knowledge economy, in particular in educating the young generation to understand and analyse better the role of the newspapers in the democratic and public debate.

...

At this moment, the sustainability of advertising revenues for press is under increasing pressure from market competition but also from legislative and policy restrictions. Although newspapers' brand remain a reference for advertisers, for both printed and online versions, publishers are confronted to a challenging market situation where they have to compete with new market players such as telecom operators, search engines and internet services providers.

In certain countries, the dominance of these players on the advertising market is contested as it is the case in Italy where publishers decided to complaint [sic] to the competition authorities for abuse of dominant position of Google in the advertising area. Also in France, an investigation from the competition authority in this field is also considered.

At the light of the structural changes that the press is facing at this moment, ENPA asks the Commission to ensure that the new EU digital agenda provides the necessary conditions for the growth and the sustainability of the press sector in Europe, in particular in the field of copyright but also in the field of advertising.

Put another way, a single platform for continent-wide literacy already exists in the form of the press. By "the press," we mean "newspapers" -- not Google, not Apple, and not any turncoat that would join their cause, such as the BBC.

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