Podcasting Policy and Terrorism

For: Computer Science Seminar Series, College of Engineering and Computer Science, The Australian National University, Canberra, 29 March 2006


  1. Introduction
  2. What is Podcasting?
  3. Preparing Content
  4. Podcasting Feeds
  5. Podcasting Popularity
  6. Podcasting and Advertising
  7. Regulation of Podcasting
  8. Podcasting and Terrorism

    See Also

  9. More on Podcasting
  10. Home


Podcasting is the distribution of media files using web based syndication to handheld devices. This presentation outlines how it works, discusses some of the public policy issues it raises and asks for input to the ACS's policy on digital broadcasting.

To the IT professional, Podcasting is a simple application XML technology to digitized audio (the ANU already supplies students with the digital audio of lectures). However, while technically simple, podcasting raises public policy issues: is it broadcasting? how and should it be regulated? how and who makes money from it?

What is Podcasting?

Podcasting is the distribution of audio or video files, such as radio programs or music videos, over the Internet using either RSS or Atom syndication for listening on mobile devices and personal computers. The term podcast, like "radio", can mean both the content and the method of delivery. Podcasters' websites also may offer direct download of their files, but the subscription feed of automatically delivered new content is what distinguishes a podcast from a simple download or real-time streaming (see below). Usually, the podcast features one type of "show" with new episodes either sporadically or at planned intervals such as daily, weekly, etc. In addition to this, there are podcast networks that feature multiple shows on the same feed.

From "Podcasting", Wikipedia, 28 March 2006

It should be noted that while the term podcast comes from the iPod from Apple Computer, it applies to other portable digital media players. It also applies to playing the audio files with a personal computer, without the use of a portable device. The iPod legimitised downloaded digital music and made it a business with Apple's iTunes Music Store. Later devices can play video as well as audio files. The iPod screen is about half the size of a credit card. This may seem small, but when held in the hand gives an image about the size of a 7 inch screen in a car.

Preparing Content

The media files for podcasting are usually thought of as being music, but can be any audio, including spoken word books and educational content. It is likely we will see multimedia podcasts as the capabilities of the players improve.

Podcast content is prepared as other digital audio content. For music a sophisticated recording studio and complex post processing may be used. For spoken word a microphone and PC may do. An example is the Digital Lecture Delivery Service of the ANU.

... a lecturer starts the DLD application on the Windows PC in the teaching venue and accepts or changes some information (course code, lecture name) that is automatically retrieved from the ANU central timetable system, then starts recording using the microphone in the teaching venue and at the end of the lecture, stops the recording process. That's it.

An mp3 recording is saved on the teaching venue PC behind the scenes. Some short time after the lecture, the mp3 is automatically transferred to a processing server ...

From: "How does the DLD Lecture recording work?", Program Leader, Teaching and Learning Environments, STS, ANU (undated)

One aspect often forgotten by Podcasters is that the quality of the audio produced depends largely on the microphone and recording environment used. A low cost microphone held near the speaker in a quiet environment will likely improve the recording quality much more than complex digital post processing. As an example the ANU DLD system takes the audio from the lapel microphone used for the room PA system, providing a reasonable result.

Podcasting Feeds

Once the digital audio is prepared Podcasting uses RSS or Atom syndication, popularised with blogs (web logs) to distribute content. These are small XML files which provide an automated catalog of material available. The user can subscribe to an RSS (or ATOM) "feed" and then receive podcasts automatically to their PC. These can then be loaded into a connected player.

An example is the RSS2 feed for Radio National's "All in the Mind" program. The URL for the feed is http://www.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/feeds/mind.xml. The file starts with a comment to identify it for those who see the raw file (it is intended to be read by an RSS reader, not a web browser. There is then a heading to identify the feed:

<rss version="2.0">
<title>All in the Mind</title>
All In The Mind is Radio National's weekly foray into the mental universe, the mind, brain and behaviour - everything from addiction to artificial intelligence.
<copyright>Australian Broadcasting Corporation</copyright>
<itunes:author>ABC Radio National</itunes:author>
All In The Mind is Radio National's weekly foray into the mental universe, the mind, brain and behaviour - everything from addiction to artificial intelligence.
<itunes:link rel="image" type="video/jpeg" href="http://www.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/feeds/mind.jpg">All in the Mind</itunes:link>
<itunes:category text="Science"/>
<itunes:category text="Health"/>
<itunes:category text="Public Radio"/>
<itunes:category text="Australian"/>

Each Item is then described:

<title>2006-03-25 The starving brain</title>
SUMMARY: The pressure to be thin is more intense than ever &#150; and with around 80% of teenage girls choosing to diet &#150; some slide down the slippery slope into anorexia nervosa. While our knowledge of this puzzling disorder is still limited, some inroads of understanding are being made into what occurs in the starving brain. In this week's program we hear some of the latest scientific research into the mechanisms of anorexia, and a young woman who's on the path to recovery gives a moving insight into what she's been through.
<pubDate>Sat, 25 Mar 2006 00:00:00 +1000</pubDate>
<enclosure url="http://www.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/feeds/mind_20060325.mp3" length="14476330" type="audio/mpeg"/>
2006-03-25 The starving brain - Sat, 25 Mar 2006 00:00:00 +1000
<itunes:author>ABC Radio National</itunes:author>
SUMMARY: The pressure to be thin is more intense than ever &#150; and with around 80% of teenage girls choosing to diet &#150; some slide down the slippery slope into anorexia nervosa. While our knowledge of this puzzling disorder is still limited, some inroads of understanding are being made into what occurs in the starving brain. In this week's program we hear some of the latest scientific research into the mechanisms of anorexia, and a young woman who's on the path to recovery gives a moving insight into what she's been through.

It should be noted that the RSS file does not contain the actual digital audio, just a reference to it (metadata). This makes for a small file.

Podcasting Popularity

Using the Internet for broadcasting like services is not a new idea. Carl Malamud presented "Internet Talk Radio" in 1993. These were provided for download as a digital audio files (and are still available online thirteen years later). However, there general assumption was that this was a stopgap measure until the Internet was fast enough to stream content in real to produce something like broadcasting. A protocol called multicasting was added to the Internet to provide broadcasting like services efficiently.

Having to select an audio file to download and then wait for it to download and the play made downloaded audio a tedious process. Streamed audio (and video) seemed a much better idea. The internet is now fast enough to stream audio (and for some broadband users video). Internet radio stations have sprung up using this technology. However, ITunes and the iPod popularised the idea that download media files could be easy to use. Podcasting made this an automated process: after the user has subscribed to a feed, then then just need to plug in their iPod to load the content.

By freeing the user from having to oversee the download process and allowing it to happen in the background, podcasting is revolutionising "broadcasting". Rather than using stored content being a problem, it becomes a convenience. You don't have to listen when the program is broadcast, not even make sure your recorder is on when it is active. You recorded can collect the material you want when it is available.

Podcasting and Advertising

The Internet was developed on the "build it and they will come" model. That is if the technology is good, people will find a use for it and someone will work out how to pay for it (and perhaps make it profitable). The web induced stock market crash at then end of the last century showed that not every clever Internet technology would be a business success. Podcasting provides an efficient rival to broadcasting, but will it be profitable? One may be via advertising.

Google has built a successful business with web based advertising. This depends on careful targeting of the interests of the reader and the ability of web based content to include links to an active advertisement server. This has been successful because the advertisements are selected based on the content of the web page the user selects and information about the user (such as where they are). The advertisements are therefore much more relevant to the user's interests (see if the advertisements on this web page related to the content). This same technique can and is being applied to video.

Revver.com provide digital videos supported by advertising. Unlike broadcast TV, and as with Google advertising, the advertisements are not fixed. Revver.com's uses Apple's Quicktime format, which allows a link to be included in the video to report on viewing of the ad. In this way the advertisements can be tailored to the interests of the viewer and the needs of the advertiser. New advertisements can replace old and they can be targeted at specific regions of the world. Apple Quicktime was the basis of the MPEG-4 video standard being built into new media players and it is likely that this advertising capability will be further developed.

Google's advertising for web pages relies on an Internet connection between the user's web browser and Google's advertising server. This system will not work with Podcasting, where content is downloaded and stored in the iPod. However, Google and other online advertisers are testing advertisements for RSS and Atom feeds. This should fit well with Podcasting which also uses these feeds. The advertisements can be selected and downloaded at the same time the feed content is being downloaded. Once loaded to the iPod the advertisement will be fixed. But even so they will have been individually selected based on the podcast content and the user's profile.

Regulation of Podcasting

In reality traditional radio and TV broadcasting organisations provide very little live-to-air content. Content is preprepared and then cued for distribution via radio transmitters. Provided an Internet connection of sufficient bandwidth is available, there is little difference between broadcasting and Podcasting, for the consumer, except that podcasting is more convenient. If the Internet connection is wireless, podcasting can replace radio in cars.

For several years I subscribed to a digital TV service via a fibre optic in my apartment basement in Canberra. While there were several channels, about all that caught my interest were the car shows. There was only one hour of such content per week (30 minutes from BBC and DW), so I cancelled the service. If offered these programs by Podcast I would be happy to watch them, with locally inserted, custom car advertisements. In the future such programs might even be transmitted to the Linux touch screen computer embedded in the dashboard of the Indian made Reva NXG electric car.

Podcasting therefore provides similar challenges for broadcasters and regulators, as the web has for print publishers. Broadcasting is regulated by, and on the assumption that, it uses scarce radio spectrum (or scarce space for terrestrial cables). Podcasting does not provide its own transmission medium, using an Internet connection. It therefore uses no radio spectrum, or real estate itself. There is therefore no logic to restricting the number of Podcast "channels" available, as radio and TV are restricted. There is no limit on the distance a podcast can travel and so regulation based on national boundaries also make little sense.

The Internet and the web provide an example of where issues of regulation were previously addressed. Copyright laws have been adapted for the web, as have censorship laws. The approach of saying what applies in similar media applies on the web has worked reasonably well. The ACS was one of the organisations which provided policy advice on the Internet, web censorship and spam. Podcasting can happen the same way, with some limited regulation.

This paper's purpose is to establish the policy of the professional body of information technologists in Australia, the Australian Computer Society, in relation to the public interest in network services.

The elements of a 'national information infrastructure' currently being debated include the long-standing public switched telephone network, the more recent analogue mobile telephone services, the new digital mobile telecommunications services, and television signal reticulation, including terrestrial and satellite broadcast and narrowcast, and cable TV. Improvements in those technologies are generating significant pressure for change. Added to that is a new element: the explosive growth of the Internet ...

Vision for a Networked Nation - The Public Interest in Network Services, Roger Clarke, Tom Worthington, ACS, 17 May 1994

Communications Technologies Board

The ACS since established a Communications Technologies Board to deal with such issues:

The Communications Technologies Board deals with all aspects of communications technology. The Board is responsible for ACS activity in areas such as:

From "TERMS OF REFERENCE", Communications Technologies (Telecommunications) Board,

Apart from technologists, it was Librarians who helped policy makers come to terms with the Internet. It was librarians who set up the Australian Government's web site structure. Similarly we need to look to those literate in digital video with help on podcasting. An example are video artists and theorists, such as Dr. Linda Wallace and Adrian Miles and the Australian Film Commission with its Podlove initiative.

Podcasting and Terrorism

One example of the issues with podcasting is that the Australian Government recently banned narrowcasting of programs that recruit or solicit donations for terrorist organisations.

The standards state that open and subscription narrowcast television services must not broadcast programs that can reasonably be construed as:

From "ACMA imposes new standards for narrowcast television services", 27 March 2006, MR 33/2006

This restriction appear not to apply to podcasting. It would also not appear to apply to ordinary TV broadcasts or cable TV.

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