Governing in black and white

by Sarah Firisen

I’ve just come back from a lovely vacation in Ireland. We did a lot of driving and usually had the radio on, often to RTE, the state run station (the equivalent to the BBC in the UK). At least once an hour an advertisement would come on reminding people that they need to get a TV license, which costs 160 Euros, $177 a year. I grew up in the UK, where a license is 154.50 sterling,  $187 a year, and remember the ads when I was a child that warned of the TV detector van coming around and catching people who hadn’t paid their license. Of course, that was in the days of very obvious exterior antennas on houses. When TV licenses were first issued in the UK after the second world war, they funded the single BBC channel. Even when I was a child, there were only 3 channels, then when I was a teen 4, and two of those were the BBC. In the UK today, a license is needed for any device that is  “installed or used” for “receiving a television programme at the same time (or virtually the same time) as it is received by members of the public”. In Ireland, as the many ads I heard made clear, the license is for a physical TV, regardless of what it’s used for, including gaming or streaming YouTube videos. In the UK, you don’t need a license if you watch anything else on your TV, including using catch-up devices and players for BBC shows, except if you use the BBC iPlayer services, but you do need a license if you watch live TV or use the BBC iPlayer on any device.  

Listening to these repeated ads in Ireland, it struck me how regressive this license charge is. Reading up on the differences in the UK, their rules seem fairer at least. On my return, I read that Ireland is actually changing its licensing rules in the future and that “The Government is to scrap the current licence fee and replace it with a charge that will hit virtually every Irish home, regardless of whether a television set is present…It will mean that anyone with a laptop, a tablet or a smartphone at home will be liable to pay.” 

I’m not really debating the virtue or utility of such licenses. There’s clearly a valid debate about the need for state owned TV and radio stations in this day and age, but that’s not my point to debate here either. Rather, my thoughts are about government’s ability to keep pace with technological changes.

More than a decade ago, I had a brief technology contracting job working for NY State government. There I got a front row seat to government’s lack of innovation and technological progress in action. Technology is moving so quickly, how does government steer the right course between not jumping at every new trend and making sure that their policies make sense in this fast moving modern world? When I was reading articles for this piece, I read that the UK still sells licenses for black white TVs (cheaper than for color ones). I initially thought this was even more evidence for the regressive nature of the TV license, after all, I’m sure you can’t buy a black and white TV these days. Then I read that as it happens, over 7,000 households still watch black and white TVs. So clearly, government regulation has to look forward, but with a least half an eye looking backwards. 

What the future Irish licensing regulations seem to be doing is,  essentially, taxing the Internet. Because who owns a smartphone or computer these days without using the Internet? An extremely good case can be made that the Internet is a utility, and indeed, in the US in 2016, the courts agreed that it is, The decision affirmed the government’s view that broadband is as essential as the phone and power and should be available to all Americans, rather than a luxury that does not need close government supervision.” I’m assuming that people consuming mobile and home internet services in Ireland are already paying tax on those purchases; so are they now going to be double taxed?  And for a non-luxury purchase?

As technology consumes an increasing part of how we live and how we work, it’s incumbent upon our governments and regulators to ensure that they’re not being regressive in their policies. I’m sure it doesn’t help that, at least in the US, congress has historically not been full of young, or even youngish people, and the UK certainly isn’t much better.  So it’s not unfair to question how tech savvy most of them actually are themselves. But there’s hope; the average age of the current congress is the youngest ever, 49.  Of course, we have a President who is 73  and, despite his egregious use of Twitter, has mostly proven himself to be your techno-phobic grandfather who doesn’t know how to turn on his computer

As virtual reality, artificial intelligence, robotics, connected devices, etc, increasingly become part an integral part of how life and work happens, governments have to keep apace. Robotics alone, and how it will affect the labor market, is something that doesn’t seem to be something that any Presidential candidate is talking about. I was in London just before the Brexit referendum and chatted to a few taxi drivers about the issue. Most of them were pro-Brexit and usually stated “those Eastern Europeans coming over and taking our jobs” as one of their main objections to the EU. Putting aside the xenophobia and just plain falsity of that view point, I did say to them all, “maybe you should be less concerned about Poles taking your jobs and more concerned about what automation will do”. Of course, that was never mentioned in the Brexit debates. And with a US President who is intent on bringing back jobs in the coal industry, what chance do we have for serious government focus on the inevitable changes to the US workforce that will be coming whether Trump understands and acknowledges them or not?

So while TV licenses are probably the least of our problems, they do seem to me to be emblematic of the challenges that government faces as it tries to keep up with the changes that technology brings, and will continue to bring. It will often need new paradigms rather than what the TV license situation exemplifies  It’s far from clear its up to the challenge, or perhaps even aware there’s a challenge to rise to.