UK battles against Web TV regulation

The European Commission risks creating ad-hoc legislation that could lead to tighter regulation of Internet content, the UK government has warned

The UK government is fighting an attempt by the European Commission to change the way television is regulated in Europe, amid fears that this could lead to the regulation of Internet content.

James Purnell, the broadcasting minister, plans to lobby a number of European countries this week against proposed changes to the Television Without Frontiers directive.

This directive governs TV services throughout Europe, but as it was introduced in 1989 the legislation does not include any references to the Web. As the broadband boom is encouraging media companies to stream television and video services across the Internet, the EC has proposed updating the directive to reflect this.

The Commission has proposed that TV services over the Internet, or to mobile phones, would only be subject to "a basic set of minimum principles", that would seek to protect minors, prevent incitement to racial hatred and outlaw surreptitious advertising.

Purnell, though, has indicated that the UK government will oppose the EC's actions, and instead supports a continuation of today's system of self-regulation.

"There is no benefit to the consumer that justifies this move. This increased scope could mean significant regulation of the Internet and stifle the growth of new media services. That would raise prices for consumers and deprive them of potential new services," said Purnell last week, according to the Sunday Telegraph.

And earlier this month, culture secretary Tessa Jowell told the Oxford Media Convention that the EC's existing proposals were "as a whole . . . still unacceptable".

The EC's draft proposals can be seen here. They are due to be debated later this week by EU member states.

The Sunday Telegraph also claimed that Google was planning to lead the charge against the updated directive. Sources at Google denied on Monday that this was the case, insisting that the search giant was just one of many concerned companies.

The EC's proposal is controversial because it touches on the sensitive issue of Internet regulation. In the UK, communications regulator Ofcom's remit does not extent to the Internet. However, it does play a key role in enforcing broadcasting regulations such as the watershed, which prevents material of an adult nature being broadcast before 9pm.

Restrictions such as the watershed become increasingly irrelevant in an online world, where users can choose to watch an extremely wide range of content at any hour of the day or night, streamed from almost anywhere in the world.

Just over a year ago, UK ISPs urged Ofcom not to get involved in the regulation of TV programmes over the Web.

However, Internet companies are prepared to live with regulation and restriction if it helps them to compete in new, valuable markets -- as illustrated last week by Google's decision to restrict its services for Chinese users.