The Consumer Society Goes Online – And Where Are the Citizens?

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In 1991, when the then UK Prime Minister John Major launched the Citizens’ Charter initiative (a programme aimed to improve the quality of public sector services, by applying a series of principles borrowed from the private sector), a number of criticisms were raised mainly concerning the degradation of citizens to the status of mere “consumers”. It was argued that this was the apex of a growing ideological trend to conceive the role of the Government to be that of a business regulator, and the whole society as a marketplace where citizen-consumers would trade their rights and engage in a relationship with the State authorities based on the principle of customer satisfaction. Thirty years after it is time for a remake of this story, with a different setting, different actors and the same plot: the society becomes a market and its citizens are all consumers.

At the end of April the French President Nicolas Sarkozy has officially installed the Conseil national du numérique (National Digital Council), a public body established with the function of advising the Government on digital policy issues. The new body has not started working yet and has already aroused widespread and bitter controversy. Although initially interpreted as a backoff from the harshly criticized Hadopi and Loppsi laws, the CNN will not have in its agenda, as President Sarkozy later pointed out, any weakening of the current structure of copyright and anti-piracy regulation. Some regret comes also from the final version of the institutive decree that will not require, on the contrary of some draft versions previously circulated, the Government to compulsorily consult the CNN before passing any regulation: a spokesperson of the industrial union claimed that this would reduce the role of the Council to that of a simple ‘comité bling-bling’. The degree of independence of the body was also challenged, since the President of the Republic will be in charge for appointing autonomously (and with non transparent criteria) all of the members of the Council. The major bone of contention is anyway the list of the 18 members who will sit in the Council in the next 2 years, which only encompasses representatives of various companies operating in the digital industry; it was reported that in this way the Council would just gather economic actors more interested in maximizing profits for their shareholders than in the good of the Republic.

Alongside the risks of private interests influencing the decisions of the Council, it is noteworthy the way the matter was presented in the news and in the statements of the different figures involved. The semantics of the debate reveal that everyone is talking about the same problem but they are not telling the same story. Pierre Kosciusko-Morizet, who had drafted the original recommendations to the Government, had advised that the CNN should offer representation to the ‘users’ of the Internet. After the list of appointments was circulated the spokesperson of a local NPO regretted the exclusion of the ‘civil society’ and another organization engaged in the defense of civil liberties denounced the lack of legitimacy of a body where the ‘citizens’ are not represented. Different media variously reported the exclusion of ‘internauts’ and ‘representatives of the public’ from the Council. To all these critics President Sarkozy gave a somewhat odd reply by pointing out that the ‘consumers’ already have their own places of representation.

The Internet is certainly a variegated reality and suitable for a wide range of different uses, many – or maybe even all – of them can be described in terms of services available to “consumers”; this is obvious for some activities that are directly related to some kind of business (such as e-commerce and podcasting, for instance) and in a broader sense it can also be true for those who benefit from different activities with less direct economic implications. Everyone who uses services generated within the economy can be described as a consumer, and there is no doubt that the Internet offers services generated within a particular kind of economy (there are even a number of words coined in order to describe the particular markets based on World-Wide Web, like “new economy”, “Internet economy”, “dot-com economy”): nothing wrong then in defining “consumers” all the Internet users, at least it is technically unobjectionable. There is much bad instead if the use of the word unconsciously reveals a general understanding of the role of the Internet within the society to be transferred into policy designs and initiatives.     

The idea of Internet users as “consumers” suggests of a purely market-oriented conception of the Web  where only the activities that can be exploited to build customer value are worth of being taken in consideration. The Internet as a place where to make business and where its users have to be granted with consumers protection laws. This echoes the earliest approach of the EU policies to media, when the whole regulation of the sector used to be subsumed to the domain of freedom to provide services and inspired to the principles of competition law; an approach that is nowadays being (slowly) abandoned in favor of a more comprehensive understanding of the media to be treated and regulated not only as an industry, but also in the role of a constitutive part of the public sphere. The Internet as a locus socialis, a place for public debate, where the citizens can actively engage and make their opinions to be heard. There are a wide range of user-generated contents whose value goes much beyond merely economic interests. Web 2.0 has fostered a long series of activities, such as blogging, social networks, forums, online citizens journalism, that are all part of a new “national conversation” (as it has been wittily defined) and cannot be effectively protected by only enforcing competition law.

Excluding citizens from a steering committee where the future regulation and policies of the sector will be decided is likely to be a recipe for poor decisions to come up in the future; but addressing them just as consumers means having no understanding of the broad impact of the Internet on the whole society, and is something even more worrying.

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