24th May 2017
Look back 10 years and you’ll see a strange, unfamiliar digital landscape.
No iPhones, iPads or Android devices.
A little-known site called Facebook was breaking out of US universities and opening up for anyone to register.
Google, already a big player in search, bought a start-up called YouTube.
Look back even further – 20 years – and you’ll hear the awful shriek of a dial-up modem and find websites that look like they were designed in Paint.
So look ahead 10 years and what will the digital landscape look like?
The web as we know it is going to change for one simple reason.
The laissez-faire approach to digital life that allowed start-ups to flourish across global markets without the hindrance of offline market rules is coming to an end. And it’s going to change the way the web looks and works in different parts of the world. It has the potential to change how content is monetised online – and how campaigns run in different territories.
There are three trends to watch for:
1. The world wide web will be more local
The web you experience in North America will begin to differ substantially to the experience in Europe. There’s already a substantial difference in Asian markets. But increasingly we’re seeing innovation from big players being restricted in some territories: the latest being the roll-out of Facebook’s facial recognition app. Why? Privacy regulations and laws around data sharing are already being more stringently applied. As those laws and regulations bite, the major platforms will either withhold innovation in certain countries, or come up with “lite” versions that satisfy regulators and allow consumers limited access to new services. The net effect? The web will feel less global, more local.
2. Free and easy will become a little costly
The platforms that have shaped the modern web have grown in part thanks to a legal quirk – “safe harbour” rules from the late 1990s that allow “passive carriers of content” some exemptions from offline rules like copyright. So consumers have been able to pick-up, mash-up and share content on social channels and YouTube without having to worry about the police knocking on their door. The channels haven’t had to worry too much either, though they have introduced reporting systems for people to reclaim control of their content and intellectual property. But safe harbour is now under real scrutiny by regulators and the courts in Europe. So could there be a future world of micropayments and fines in Europe if consumers share copyrighted information. One Silicon Valley futurist, Jaron Lanier thinks so. So could the platforms end up playing the role of police officer for the first time? Potentially. If that happens, again, the web will start to look different in the Europe than elsewhere in the world – and different ways for content to be monetised will emerge.
3. Welcome to the data border
Again, old rules meant that the web giants could move data around the world freely; storing consumers’ information how they wanted, where they wanted. Well, those days are coming to an end too. One wheeze to overcome this is building data centers in specific countries to serve that country’s citizens. That may only be the start. The harder and costlier it becomes to provide a service in a particular country or territory, the more the squeeze on company margins, the less attractive the place becomes to do business. So in the long-run could the giants withdraw from some markets because of regulation? That’s a long-shot. But again, stringent regulation points to a likely path that the major platforms may become more tailored to local circumstances over time.
So why will this happen?
To answer that, we need to rewind 20 years. You’ve popped down to Our Price record store on the high street to buy a guilty pleasure: the 18-track CD of Take That’s Greatest Hits.
You parted with £10, but it felt like a bargain as the album has topped the charts for most of April 1996.
Now fast-forward two decades.
Paying a £10 for 18 tracks seems a bit steep these days.
You can access 30 million songs on Spotify without paying a penny or subscribe to ad-free streaming for less than a tenner a month.
Some kind souls have also uploaded the tracks to YouTube; if you want to listen while watching scrolling lyrics or slideshows of stills they’ve grabbed from around the web.
But if music is cheaper than 20 years ago, is the creativity behind it worth less too?
This stark question about digital disruption was the opening poke at the audience at a United Nations-backed conference in Geneva last month.
The conference saw the music, publishing, media and movie industries share their views on digital creativity with an audience of ambassadors and government officials from around the globe.
And what emerged from the Geneva conference was a sense that the lawmakers are sizing up the digital frontier.
The message: make established principles – like copyright – relevant in a way that makes sharing and streaming more accountable to the content creators.
There are already experiments. For example, the UK’s Copyright Hub is exploring how to add easy information about licensing payments to millions of online images.
In principle, one click on a Google Images result and you could be told the cost and buy the right to reuse the picture.
The lawmakers are riding into town
Across the Atlantic, the tech companies are unlikely to want to reinvent their successful streaming and sharing services. They were notably absent from the Geneva conference. And, after 20 years of a culture of largely free and increasingly easy sharing of content, will consumers accept new rules for sharing content or en masse ignore them?
But just like the old American West, frontiers are tamed by the coming of the law. So whether they are international lawyers, studios and production houses, or copyright experts, the lawmen are arriving on the digital frontier. And what will follow will be the end of the era of the Wild West Web.