Sun, May 15, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Back off, Brussels -- leave Europe's Web alone!

The EU's suggestion last week that it may require national media regulators to police Internet content for taste and decency has European netizens up in arms

By Paul Carr  /  THE GUARDIAN , London

Nazism. Txt msg spEk. People who attach photos to their CVs. Transparent cars. There are some things in life that it is easy to criticize. But by far the easiest is the EU in Brussels.

Silly old, interfering old Brussels. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm as Europhilic as the next person, but I do sometimes wonder if the European legislators get together every week and say: "Right, we've interfered with fruit shapes, pet naming, the consistency of soap and the size of road signs ... what else can we overcomplicate? How about the smell of toy cars? Brilliant!"

So it was that last week the EU suggested it may require national media regulators to police Internet content for taste and decency. Just when you thought it was safe to install Movable Type.

The proposal stems from an ongoing debate over changes to the current Television Without Frontiers (TVSF) directive, which sets the agenda for Europe-wide media regulation. Along with the usual guff about TV standards, the revised directive is expected to introduce regulation for all TV programs that are broadcast across the Internet.

There are of course some pretty huge questions raised by this suggestion. First, at exactly what point does, say, a flash cartoon or a viral video become a TV program? If I include an animated gif in a blog, have I suddenly become a broadcaster? If so, the people who make those "hilarious" animated images of Popeye and Olive Oyl doing rude things to each other are going to be in real trouble. Or will the regulations only apply to commercial broadcasters who put existing programs on the net? What about the new breed of Internet-only "broadcasters" who are popping up to take advantage of the broadband revolution?

But whatever the answer to all of these huge questions turns out to be, there's an even huger question that no one in Brussels seems to be asking. Has anyone realized that the internet reaches beyond Europe? If European Internet content suddenly begins to be censored by regulators the effect will be both instant and brutal. To put it bluntly, the entire European broadband content industry will die.

What's the point in content producers trying to operate in a heavily regulated environment when they can simply go to the US where, despite heavy TV regulation, the Internet is a virtual free-for-all for video content? It's not as if Brussels -- or anyone else -- will be able to police content from outside the EU, unless it plans to copy China and put up firewalls to block "dangerous" Web sites.

When I first started thinking about all this I became quite angry. Why on Earth would a body that is supposed to be working in Europe's best interests want to destroy the livelihoods of so many of its citizens? But fortunately, the sheer ridiculous unworkability of the plan means that it is about as likely to happen as Texas joining the EU. Instead, the compromise favored by Ofcom is to introduce a ratings system for Web content, similar to the one used for films and video games.

Yet, the more I think about it, the more I think that Brussels might be right. Maybe we should go down the censorship route, no matter what problems it might cause. Just think how lovely it would be for Europe to become an oasis of niceness and reliability in the murky swamp of Internet content. Imagine the peace of mind that comes from knowing that if you watch an online broadcast created in the EU, it is being policed for accuracy and taste.

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