Ofcom may have to police Internet content
Media regulators across Europe could be forced to police Internet content for taste and decency in the same way as television programmes, according to proposals under consideration in Brussels.
The plans have led to fears at the British media watchdog Ofcom that this may stifle innovation in the nascent broadband content industry and prove impossible to enforce.
This year the UK regulator will review the likely impact of broadband and other new services such as 3G over the next decade and consult the public and the industry over whether content delivered over them can and should be regulated.
The issue has come to a head as Brussels debates changes to a revamped Television Without Frontiers directive, which sets the agenda for European media regulation. New draft proposals are due to be issued later this year. The thinking in Brussels is that it will contain plans for Europe-wide regulation of television-style broadcasts over the Internet.
But content providers, Internet service providers and Ofcom are worried that as myriad new services delivering television over the Internet become commonplace, they will prove impossible to regulate in the traditional manner.
And with overseas content providers able to broadcast internationally over the Internet, there are also concerns that it would put British companies at a competitive disadvantage.
The proposals, if implemented, would run counter to Ofcom's determination to reduce its regulatory burden and switch to a "light touch".
Robin Foster, Ofcom's senior partner in charge of strategy, said: "[Television Without Frontiers] seems to be geared to extending traditional broadcasting regulation into new media and the Internet.
"The slight worry is that it takes a very regulatory approach to new media, which may have a number of bene fits, but it may not be positive and may stop new ideas developing in a broadband world. We shouldn't just assume that we should regulate."
Instead, Ofcom is believed to favour a mix of existing laws, such as those on obscenity and copyright, and advocating greater media literacy so consumers can block unwelcome content themselves. One idea floated last year would be to rate content on all Websites.
The industry, from Internet service providers to Websites, is also sceptical over whether the medium can be regulated in any meaningful way.
A spokesman for the Internet Service Providers' Association, a trade body, said: "There's been laws passed against spam. But in a situation where spam is coming from around the world and there are different laws in place in Europe and the US, what do you do?"
Already an increasing number of broadband subscribers watch television programmes over the Web as prices come down and connection speeds increase. Later this year telecom companies including BT and France Telecom's Wanadoo plan to launch video-on-demand services to be delivered over broadband lines via a set-top box to the television.
Mr Foster has also been asked by the chief executive, Stephen Carter, to lead a wide-ranging review of Ofcom's regulatory role in the digital age before he leaves the post later this year. And as part of the implementation of its recommendations in its public-service broadcasting review, it will ask media groups this summer to mock up options for its mooted £350m public-service publisher.
Designed to provide the BBC with competition in a multi channel age, the trial services will form the centrepiece of a public consultation.
Other pressing issues for the regulator include a review of the options for local television. Mr Foster said Ofcom would consult over whether to advocate a commercial "city TV" model or one based on not-for-profit community services.
He said he hoped to have a framework in place for the network of new channels by the time the government begins to switch off the analogue signal in 2008, so they could broadcast immediately using the spectrum released.
Return to internet news headlines
View Internet News Archive