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Europe defends online broadcasting plans

Commissioner Viviane Reding says the Television Without Frontiers directive will help businesses, but many big Internet players are wary of regulation

The European Commission (EC) has defended its proposal to revise the Television Without Frontiers (TVWF) Directive, saying that Internet businesses would benefit from the legislation.

The existing TVWF regulations, which cover traditional broadcasters, 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.

This has alarmed some in the business and Internet community, and led the CBI to claim last month that the directive would "stifle economic growth, inhibit job creation and hamper the development of digital content and services across the EU".

But speaking on Wednesday, Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner for Information Society and Media, pledged not to intervene in business. 

"There will be no regulation of the Internet," Reding told ZDNet UK on Wednesday. "I'm not going to intervene in business — I am technology neutral," Reding added.

The Commissioner, appearing at an Internet Content Rating Association (ICRA) event in Brussels, told ZDNet UK that there should be basic rules to protect minors online, and to prohibit incitement to hatred and overly repetitive advertising.

Reding rejected the CBI's claims that the TVWF Directive revisions were an attempt to "shoehorn digital content providers into rules designed for traditional broadcasters, undermining high-value, high-tech economic growth when it should be stimulating it."

"Self regulation works best when there is a legal framework to support it. With co-regulation, the government lays down the rules, then the implementation of the rules by individual [companies]. Government only steps in if self-regulation is not effective," said Reding.

"When consumers have control and choice, you do not need heavy rules. There are only basic tier rules. The provider has to obey basic rules, but it's for the parents to choose [how to filter content]. I don't want to do that top down," said Reding.

Reding claimed that instead of limiting business, the legislation would instead enable Internet enterprises and content providers to expand in Europe.

"If you have 25 conflicting regulations in 25 countries, you can't take advantage of the internal market. When the new rules are applied, [content providers] can get authorisation in Britain and spread into 25 countries. I see a big chance for European content to travel," said Reding.

But there is widespread concern that the Directive will effectively mean that online content would be regulated.

Professor Michael Rotert, president of the European Internet Service Providers Association (EuroISPA), claimed that the Directive revisions were regulation of the Internet by stealth.

"This is regulation of the Internet through the backdoor. We think Commissioner Reding has not understood the concept of the Internet. It might be she thinks she's regulating content, but you can't distinguish things so easily. Regulated self-regulation will be misused immediately, when it comes into practice," Rotert told ZDNet UK.

AOL, Microsoft, Google and Verizon all also expressed concern on Wednesday about the scope of the legislation, and the problem of jurisdiction and enforcement.

"We believe existing legislation protects children and consumers. Child abuse images are already illegal," said Camille de Stempel, director of policy, AOL UK. "We believe strongly in self regulation as the way forward."

"We don't see the need for the directive — we have a lot of tools to protect children, it's in our interest to....If anything we should look at the relaxation of broadcasting regulations rather than trying to shoehorn the Internet into a new regulatory framework," said Stempel.

In the days before the Web, broadcasters could be forced to comply with concepts such as the watershed, which means that television that is unsuitable for children can't be shown before 9pm. But today, online broadcasting and video streaming means that these traditional methods of regulation often can't be applied.

Mike Cosse, Microsoft's lead counsel for Europe, argued that self-regulation by the industry was the answer. "Let's use self-regulation on content, and help the state in a cooperative, non-confrontational way," Cosse said.

"We want to encourage the authorities to step in against those who obviously provide very illegal content. Apply appropriate regulations to the appropriate content." Cosse added.

Mike McKeehan, executive director of Internet and technology policy for Verizon, backed this point.

"In the US the 1st Amendment outlines parameters, and defines what's legal and what's not legal. Child porn is toxic material. But, we [in the US] also have violent and graphic images available to children, which is a little bit schizophrenic," said McKeenan.

"We [Verizon] are not big proponants of government regulation — we prefer to let the market work," McKeenhan told ZDNet UK. And Patricia Moll, European policy director for Google, said the search giant was "concerned with the scope of the regulations".

But Stephen Balkam, chief executive officer of ICRA said that "light governmental oversight" was desirable, together with robust industry self-regulation, including the labelling and meta-tagging of content.

Balkam also called for greater parental involvement and education, as "the Internet and the world of digital content has no watershed."

Adam Thierer of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a centre-right think tank that promotes deregulation, argued that "The rules are currently unclear, and it remains unclear whether the directive will adequately address the question of convergence. There's a fuzzy distinction between traditional TV and on-demand, especially if one piece of content is morphed to fit different platforms."