UK ISPs are worried that communications regulator Ofcom may be given powers over the delivery of television programmes over the Internet.
Ofcom's current remit does not give it control over Internet content, but several recent speeches from senior Ofcom staff have sparked speculation that the regulator may want this to change to address the advent of "TV over broadband" services.
On Wednesday the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) urged Ofcom not to seek a mandate to control video services delivered over the Internet. Speaking at ISPA's parliamentary advisory forum, ISPA secretary general Nicholas Lansman argued that it would be wrong to make ISPs responsible for material viewed by their subscribers.
The ISPA's fear is that the TV watershed, which prevents terrestrial broadcasters from transmitting programmes unsuitable for children before 9pm, could be imposed on ISPs.
Lord Currie, Ofcom chairman, told the forum that it was important to strike a balance between taking action to protect people and trusting them to judge and address dangers themselves.
But while Lord Currie applauded the UK ISP sector for its track record on issues such as child pornography, he warned that self-regulation "may not be the answer".
"We need an honest debate on whether content, including Internet content, should be regulated in a more converged way," said Lord Currie.
John Carr of the Internet Watch Foundation called on Ofcom to take a lead in driving media literacy, which he said would help people to better understand how to avoid content that they felt was inappropriate for themselves or their families. "If a solution does not emerge, we could very much hope that Ofcom would go back to parliament and say 'this hasn't worked. We need to look again at our statutory powers'," said Carr.
When MPs created the Communications Act, under which Ofcom was created, they deliberately did not give the regulator control over Internet access and services.
Lord Currie suggested that he was not planning to ask MPs to alter Ofcom's remit. "If we did have to go back and say 'it didn't work', it's not clear to me what powers would be needed," he said.
While relations between ISPA and Ofcom appeared warm on Wednesday evening, it is understood that the association is deeply troubled by some of the regulator's recent actions.
In particular, a speech given last month by Matt Peacock, Ofcom director of communications, appears to have ruffled some feathers.
"The Communications Act rightly excluded Internet control from Ofcom's remit, and made a clear distinction between TV and the Internet," said Peacock, speaking at an event marking the 10th anniversary of the London Internet Exchange. "Over time, that distinction will be washed away."
Peacock's comments echoed an earlier speech given by Lord Currie to the Royal Television Society in October. Currie said that the UK's technological landscape, with fixed-line broadband, mobility and storage all buoyant, had massive implications.
"The rapid growth of first multi-channel, then digital, then personal video recorders and soon higher-speed broadband are simply the pre-tremors of the real volcanic eruption that technology is about to unleash," Lord Currie told the RTS. "At the risk of being over-dramatic I would say that most traditional television broadcasters are today standing about the equivalent of one mile from Mount St Helens. When it blows, frankly, that is too close and then it will be too late to run."