Europe wants to begin to regulate the Internet for the first time by introducing controversial rules to cover television online.
Brussels is considering regulating areas such as taste and decency, accuracy and impartiality for Internet broadcasters. More broadly, it is thinking about relaxing rules governing the frequency and amount of advertising on television.
The proposals are expected to prompt an immediate battle because Ofcom, the media regulator, believes that traditionally strict broadcast regulations should not be extended to the Internet.
Viviane Reding, the European Information Commissioner, will set out the idea today as part of the biggest revision of European television regulation since 1989.
She will unveil five “issues papers”, one of which will discuss the impact of technological change since then, and conclude that “non-linear audio-visual content” — television downloads — needs to be subject to regulation.
Some of the changes mooted, such as the extension of rules governing the protection of children, are unlikely to be controversial, but others, such as the need for Internet broadcasters to provide a statutory right of reply, are likely to provoke fierce debate.
Tim Suter, Ofcom’s partner for content and standards, said: “Whatever happens, it is not appropriate to take the set of rules that apply to television and apply them to other media. Where possible, we should be looking at self-regulation or co-regulation, because that is something that can deliver the goods.”
The idea is that any Website trying to make money from broadcasting television — perhaps by providing video clips in addition to text — could be brought into the net. However, Commission officials say that the rules for Websites will be less strict than those currently applying to the BBC.
Today, television delivered via the Internet is unregulated in Britain. There is, therefore, nobody with legal power to force an Internet broadcaster to respect rules governing accuracy and impartiality or taste and decency that apply to all other analogue and digital broadcasters.
Home Choice, the leading Internet television broadcaster, has formed its own self-regulatory body, which mirrors most of the existing rules. Ofcom believes that this approach is sufficient for responsible broadcasters, while any others are likely to operate offshore from jurisdictions beyond the European Union’s reach.
The new rules will come out of a rewrite of Television Without Frontiers, the 1989 European directive that set the benchmark for television regulation.
Although the issues papers to be published tomorrow will not contain firm conclusions, broadcasters will have until September 5 to respond in writing. A draft directive will be produced at the end of this year.
As well as covering Internet regulation, the consultation documents will signal a liberalising of the prescriptive regulations covering the amount of advertising that a TV channel can show — an existing limit of 12 minutes an hour is likely to be scrapped.
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