- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A European plan to apply traditional broadcast-television regulations to so-called “new media” services has some American Internet companies and free-speech advocates worried it could stifle free expression on both sides of the Atlantic.

The proposal, an update to the European Union’s 1989 “Television Without Frontiers” directive, would regulate on-demand audiovisual content — such as streaming online video, podcasts or mobile-phone clips — “to protect minors and prevent incitement to racial hatred,” according to a statement signed by Viviane Reding, Europeancommissioner for information society and media, and linked on her Web site.

Patrick Ross, a senior fellow at the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a Washington free-market think tank, said the regulation, though well-intended, would have unwanted consequences.

“One of the great difficulties of the Internet to a large extent is the Internet does not obey borders. When a company is operating across borders and they’re facing disparate regulations, they face a choice of essentially operating two different companies or just operating at the highest level of regulation,” Mr. Ross said. “And that could mean the EU’s rules could essentially become the global rules.”

The rule has drawn criticism from bloggers, many of whom equate it with an attack on free speech.

“One of the greatest freedoms we have is the freedom of speech. We can say whatever, whenever. Well, except if it’s Internet video. Or if it’s hate speech. And if It’s Internet video hate speech, double whammy on that,” Michael Ruane, better known as “Doc,” wrote last week in a posting on his blog, “the Autopsy.”

On her blog, “With Issue,” “Janjan” said of the proposal: “Sounds good on the surface, [but] you know what’s coming.”

Bloggers aren’t the only ones worried by the prospect of EU regulation. U.S. Internet giants Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. have criticized the idea.

“One of the reasons that the Internet has been so phenomenally successful is because it has been lightly regulated,” a Google spokesman said in an e-mail. “We believe that extending the scope of broadcasting regulation to new media like the Internet would be a mistake and risks undermining the creativity and innovation we have seen to date.”

Likewise, a Yahoo spokesman said: “The benefits of the Internet have been spread through a competitive environment that allows consumers to choose the best services, in turn stimulating innovation and growth. We’ll continue our dialogue with European policy-makers as these proposals make their way through the legislative process.”

Video-sharing site YouTube Inc. — which earlier this month agreed to be acquired by Google — declined to comment.

Ms. Reding’s office maintains that only “commercial services” will be affected by the directive.

“The [European Commission] has absolutely no intention of regulating ‘amateur’ publication of audiovisual material on the Internet. It is just the professionally edited TV and TV-like programs that will be subject to the regulations,” Martin Selmayr, a spokesman for Ms. Reding, said in an e-mail.

In the proposal, “audiovisual” includes “mass media in their function to inform, entertain and educate, but excludes any form of private correspondence, like e-mails sent to a limited number of recipients.”

Media services that may contain audiovisual “elements” but whose “principal purpose … is not to provide audiovisual content” are excluded from the regulations.

“It started out as a noble intention,” Mr. Ross said of Ms. Reding’s stated desire, which is to bolster European competitiveness by setting a minimum standard of regulation so that media services are not required to comply with multiple laws.

“But this would essentially impose regulations where they do not currently exist, and would cause a great deal of confusion for companies that are operating in both the old and new media space,” he said.

As a result of the confusion, the directive “will be far more sweeping than anything we’ve seen,” he said.

A first reading of the directive is scheduled for mid-December, Mr. Selmayr said. If a “common position” is reached, the proposal would be sent back to the 25 EU member countries for approval and implementation.

Only Britain and Slovakia have been outspoken opponents of the proposal.

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