Where are the frontiers?

Put two civil servants in a room, and they will inevitably dream up some new legislation. One of the roles of the European Commission is to regulate broadcasting in Europe, primarily to ensure that programming does not offend or incite crime.

Current legislation predates the use of the Internet for content delivery and is based in the world of terrestrial television, although it does cover satellite delivery. In the guise of reducing red tape, the commission is proposing to deregulate many of the rules around broadcasting. The aim is to have one set of rules that applies to all delivery channels, not just conventional television. Of course, this will encompass audio-visual content on the Web.

All this is driven by the advances in delivery technologies, such as IPTV and mobile TV. It sounds laudable to deregulate; to many folks, state control smacks of censorship. The commission's proposals to upgrade the “TV without Frontiers Directive” to become the “Audiovisual Media Services Directive” are now making the rounds of the national parliaments.

The new media distribution channels have so far operated self-regulation, and many in the Web community fiercely defend the freedom of the Web for publishers of user-generated content. Much of the innovation in electronic entertainment is coming from new media and new publishing models, with YouTube being a typical example.

Legislation, even when “deregulated,” is still regulation. Those who oppose the proposed directive would like to see far more clarification of what is deemed an audio-visual service. The commission defines linear and nonlinear services to distinguish between traditional push broadcasting and the more recent pull technologies.

Although the Web may purport to be unregulated, there is control in the form of many cease and desist letters dispatched to ISPs that generally result in content being removed without question. This is not control through targeted legislation; it is control by corporations or individuals through their lawyers. Given this alternative, I believe that viewers would rather have control of audio-visual media by an elected state rather than corporations.

The mushrooming of new content itself raises questions. How can you possibly regulate the volume of online content being posted? As the Web converges with television, it is going to be difficult to set boundaries between what is “TV-like” and hence regulated, and what is not. As far as regulation is concerned, technology has created a Pandora's box.

There are individuals who believe viewers should be free to make their own judgments about what they watch. At the other end of the scale, some governments like extreme control. I visited a country once for a trade show, and my demo tape had to pass the censor. I often wonder what the guy made of my tape. It consisted of a sequence of test patterns, color bars and frequency sweeps. Did he spend hours searching for a subliminal message?

A completely unregulated Internet is opposed by the majority, and most would follow the line of the commission in that regulation should outlaw content that goes against core societal values, such as the protection of minors and the prevention of racial hatred. The problem is defining such values, as well as values that apply across different societies. As an example, even within Europe, there is a wide variation in the acceptance of pornography.

The problem for regulators is that the Internet ignores borders, and the content traffic is too high to sensibly filter as it crosses the state borders. The proposal puts the onus on the country where the content originates to ensure that it complies with their legislation. The idea behind this is that cross-border media trading would not be fettered by the need to comply with the rules of each destination country. That certainly simplifies European trading, but what about competing content from outside the EU?

What is considered legal, decent and honest is never fixed. It changes as societies evolve. The commissioners will eventually arrive at a compromise that will satisfy some, but there will always be a vocal minority wanting more or less control over what we can broadcast or view.

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