The British Government has launched a fierce attack on the European Commission over proposed legislation that seeks to regulate online content.
Existing Television without Frontiers (TVwF) regulations cover traditional broadcasters, and set minimum standards for advertising and the protection of minors. The EC wants to extend them to cover online audio-visual content, including new media broadcasting and emerging technological platforms.The UK Government called the proposals "ill thought-through and ill-conceived" on Thursday, and said that the proposals would inhibit economic growth.
"We are completely negative about it," said Shaun Woodward MP, Minister for Creative Industries and Tourism. "The more we look at it, it seems a really bad idea. The fundamental flaw is that it probably won't work. I see it doing huge damage to our growth," Woodward continued. "The problem is the absolute lack of clarity."
If implemented, the directive would set minimum standards on areas such as advertising, hate speech and the protection of minors. Opponents claim this would force content providers to regulate Internet content.
Woodward said that the exact scope of the legislation the European Commission is proposing is "unclear", as it could cover a range of Internet services and mobile content providers.
"We have serious concerns over the inclusion of non-linear services [such as video-on-demand] in the Directive. This is neither desirable nor practical, as there is nothing to stop companies relocating outside the EU to bypass regulations. Companies may relocate, taking jobs and services elsewhere, while the content is still consumed here," said Woodward, speaking at a Westminster Media Forum seminar in London.
"This is a good example of where the EU goes wrong. Viviane Reding has got it wrong," Woodward claimed. Reding is the EU Commissioner for Information Society and Media, who is pushing through the proposals.
The Government warned that one of the "huge problems" with the amendments to the legislation is that it could regulate "absolutely anything" online, including Weblogs, video Weblogs, and online gaming content.
Because of the amount of content, this could create "huge enforcement difficulties," said Woodward.
But the European Commission insisted on Thursday that the scope of the proposals was clear.
"There is a clear answer. We are trying to regulate moving images and audiovisual content," said Harald Trettenbrein, head of sector for digital information society and media at the European Commission.
"We are not trying to regulate static content on mobile phones, and we don't care about the online extension of newspapers. Text stills are not covered by the regulations."
Trettenbrein said that the legislation was light, and was only intended to protect minors and ban hate speech. He also insisted that the proposals would benefit UK businesses, because they could export more content produced in English.
"This is a business opportunity for the UK," said Trettenbrein.
Woodward said that while the UK Government supported the aims of the directive in protecting children and regulating against hate speech, the indirect consequences of the legislation are a concern.
"We don't understand enough about the effects of the legislation," said Woodward.
Communications regulator Ofcom said that it shared some of the UK government's concerns, but was uncomfortable about the arguments being put forward about the benefits or disadvantages to businesses.
"We saw the potential danger of these proposals early," said Alex Blowers, international director at Ofcom. "The real problem area is the extension of scope."
"We are not favouring the industry view. We should be protecting consumers — the Commission needs active support in that," Blowers added.