EU waters down connected TV proposals

The EU appears to be drawing back from imposing rigorous data privacy and competition regulations on the nascent hybrid-TV market as it approaches the point of legislation.

The European Parliament has just agreed on a draft initiative to be voted on in July that, if passed, will set the stage for possible legislation that would then feed through to all 27 member states. At the same time, the European Commission, through its Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG Connect) is involved in a public consultation running until the end of August, with the aim of recommending regulations soon after that.

But, significantly, DG Connect has indicated that it is relaxing earlier proposals for vigorous enforcement of competition or data privacy laws while ditching a proposal to harmonize intellectual property rights across all member states.

The situation ahead of legislation is often confusing in Europe, given that the EU has seven institutions and three legislative bodies. The European Parliament comprising 754 MEPS (Members of European Parliament) directly elected by the member states is the debating chamber and has the main legislative power. However, unlike most national parliaments within the member states, the European Parliament cannot enact legislation, which is the job of the second body, the European Commission, along with implementing decisions and day-to-day running of the EU. The third governing body, EU Council, is the second legislative chamber generally subordinate the the European Parliament, but with a greater role in the intergovernmental aspects of the EU such as co-ordination of foreign and economic policy between the states.

Over connected TV, the Commission has so far taken the lead through DG Connect, having published a Green Paper aiming to establish a common EU framework for legislation around Internet/TV convergence, while also catering for the boom in mobile broadband. The aim of DG Connect’s public consultation is to catch up with what is happening on the ground before ploughing on with legislation that could otherwise be out of date well before it reached the statute books of member states.

The Commission has taken the view that, even if smart TVs themselves do not take off to the extent that had been predicted, there will in any case be a big shift in viewing habits, with smartphones and especially tablets greatly increasing their share of viewing time. It also believes that broadband, both mobile and fixed, will become the primary mechanism of TV delivery within 10 years, and this view has created tension with the EBU in its campaign to defend spectrum for digital terrestrial TV. The Commission’s VP in charge of broadband, Neelie Kroes, has been outspoken in arguing for greater investment in the sector, but has been forced onto the defensive by recent cutbacks in the proposed EU budget for the seven years 2014-2020.

Meanwhile, the Commission has come to realize that the EU’s writ may not run smoothly when it comes to cross-border harmonization of hybrid TV. It has seen that content deals tend to be done on a country rather than EU-wide basis, which means that Europe cannot be treated as a harmonized market like the U.S. There are also differences over approaches to cross-media ownership and also the extent to which the Internet should be reined in and brought into line with broadcasting. This has come to a head with some recent cases involving child abduction and murder where Internet child pornography has been implicated, leading to calls in some countries such as the UK to twist the arms of the major players in content distribution, such as Google, to stifle online access to such material.

The argument is that search engines and perhaps Internet Service Providers should be treated more like broadcasters than telecommunication operators in being legally responsible for the material they disseminate or provide access to. The Commission is determined to make its influence felt over such issues relating to protection of minors and also cultural diversity, which it feels should be covered by legislation at the European level. But, ahead of the European Parliament vote scheduled for July 1, it is backing off from more detailed involvement in rights or technical standards.