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Why it's time for guidelines on 'privacy and the media'

By Roger Clarke - posted Monday, 18 May 2009

More content is now produced by the public than by media corporations. This has many implications. This opinion piece investigates one of them.

Prosumer Content

The prosumer notion dates from 1970 or 1980 depending on your preferences. It involves consumers becoming more proactive in one of several ways. One interpretation is that it conjoins “producer” and “consumer”, i.e. consumers become producers as well. It probably doesn't apply to activities that need capital and scale (for example, blast furnaces). On the other hand, traditional areas of activity such as arts and crafts and do-it-yourself are booming, and localised renewable energy production has shown signs of progress. But the real area in which prosumer behaviour has been explosive is digital content.

Everyone over the age of 30 has been challenged by the abrupt lurch from mass broadcasting to interactive communications that was unleashed by the arrival of Internet services starting in the early-to-mid 1990s. The Silent Generation (b. 1919-45, and over 60 in 2009), the Baby Boomers (b. 1946-1964, and now in or near their 50s), and early Generation X'ers (b. 1965 to about 1978, and in their 30s and 40s) all grew up in the era of mass media. People born since about 1980, on the other hand, have very different world-views.


Generation Y has grown up with widely-available, reliable and affordable interactive multimedia communications, initially on mobile phones and the Internet, and increasingly on the two combined. Since about 2000, the mainstream media have moved beyond interactivity into contexts in which the services are “always-on” and highly immersive, and individuals try to be “always-on” as well.

The digital tools and the bandwidth availability have enabled Gen-Ys to be not only avid consumers of digital content and services but also producers. The forms of the content that they produce are not limited to text, but include voice, music, image, video and animations. Their mode of activity is rapid, participative, egalitarian, and appropriative. When they discover that their activities breach copyright law, they are surprised, but they are mostly not greatly concerned about it. Whatever the next generation of “Millennials” will come to be called, they will have even stronger expectations that “rip, mix, mash” is “what you do”.

Among the many changes that result from prosumer content is that the longstanding for-profit and government content providers no longer have the field to themselves. Unless a major counter-reformation occurs and the natural openness of inter-networked communications is closed back down, the “official media” will have to find ways to co-exist with and accommodate the “unofficial media”.

Prosumer content quality

The flood of “newbies” is creating content, variously in the entertainment field, as open social calendars, as open social diaries, as social and political commentary, and even as news. In doing so, they're naturally committing the kinds of mistakes that all enthusiastic amateur newcomers make.

Among the various new forms of publishing outlet such as blogs and wikis, social networking services have probably generated the greatest level of concern. Issues have arisen variously because of the behaviour of service-providers, of people posting on the sites, and of people using the contents of the postings in ways the originators hadn't intended. One key problem that posters are having to learn about is the risk of self-exposure of their own profile data, contact-points, movements and behaviour. A much bigger issue is the risks to people generally of having such information about them exposed by others, and hence the responsibilities that posters need to recognise in relation to information about other people.

A variety of organisations have found it necessary to provide guidance to their employees about the use of social networking services. It has become a concern to corporations and government agencies because of the ease with which embarrassment can arise, and the potential for negative consequences for reputation and brand-value. IBM was an early mover in 2005. There was a surprising delay until the BBC (PDF 31KB) published guidance in March 2008, and the Australian Public Service Commission in December 2008. But they were not as late as Telstra, which fumbled quite memorably in the “Fake Stephen Conroy” furore of early 2009 and then rushed out a “3 Rs of Social Media” (PDF 60KB) policy on April 15.


Those were corporate responses. In the public sphere, information has been offered by associations focused on family values and child protection, and by various government agencies, including the UK Information Commissioner's Office (PDF 86KB) and the Office of the Australian Privacy Commissioner. A small set of principles was suggested in an On Line Opinion piece in May 2008.


The question arises as to whether posters on social networking sites are subject to much in the way of legal constraints. If not, should they be? If so, is the law clear, measured and effective? And, if it isn't, what should be done about it?

Even in relatively free countries, publishers generally are subject to a wide array of regulatory constraints. The censorship regime in Australia is far more permissive currently than it was as late as the 1960s, and the continual efforts by the moral minority to impose tighter regulation meet strenuous resistance, as is occurring with Minister Conroy's attempts to filter Web content.

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The author acknowledges the considerable contributions of fellow members of the Board of the Australian Privacy Foundation to the analysis supporting this opinion-piece, and in particular the experience of Nigel Waters and his submissions to the ALRC. Except where otherwise indicated, however, the opinions expressed here are those of this author, not the APF.

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About the Author

Roger Clarke is a consultant in the management of information and information technology. He has spent 40 years in the IT industry, as professional, manager, consultant and academic. His focus during the last 20 years has been on eBusiness, information infrastructure, and dataveillance and privacy. His work encompasses corporate strategy, government policy, and public advocacy.

He is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. His many papers are available on his personal web-site, which attracts over 3 million hits p.a. and has accumulated more than 30 million hits since it was launched in 1995. He holds degrees in Information Systems from University of NSW, and a doctorate from the ANU. He was made a Fellow of the Australian Computer Society in 1986.

He is a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of NSW, a Visiting Professor in the E-Commerce Programme at the University of Hong Kong, and a Visiting Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the Australian National University. He has been a Board member of the Australian Privacy Foundation since its inception in 1987.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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