European Commission has the Internet in its sight

Get ready to move your servers – the EC is looking at the internet as part of its investigation into the ground rules for future broadcasting

Simon Miller
On 17 May 2013 17:09

If an astronaut can garner millions of hits on the web for singing a Bowie song, it seems only apposite that the great bureaucratic leviathan that is the European Commission (EC) should choose to rise from the depths this week to start examining the state of broadcasting in the union.

Broadcasting, in all media, is big business in Europe and broadcasting online is especially growing. Consumer spending on digital video (movies and TV series delivered over the Internet) reached €364.4m in 2011 in Europe within a market of physical and digital videos amounting €9.49bn.

When it comes to investment, of the €34.5bn 2009 programme spend by broadcasters in the EU, approximately €15.6bn was spent on acquiring rights – €5.8bn on sports rights and €9.8bn on film and TV acquisitions. Indeed, BT, in its recent football grab, paid £3bn for the three-season deal.

So why does my heart sink when it comes to an investigation into the future of broadcasting? The short answer is because whenever the EU interferes for the good of the citizens, it is always us, the citizens, who pay.

As we have seen with football and rugby rights, the only beneficiary of the break-up of BSkyB’s monopoly was the Premiership. Two companies have now fallen by the wayside (Setanta and ESPN) after failing to monetise their investment and the customer found themselves having to find an extra tenner or so a month to keep up with coverage.

But there is another reason why I am highly suspicious about the intentions of the EC.

Internet video users are expected to increase globally to 1.5 billion by 2016, up from 792million in 2011. Reflecting this growth, there were 306 video-on-demand (VoD) services in the EU in the third quarter of 2012 and 72 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute. The problem, invariably for the EC, is control.

The growth of the internet has brought with it an explosion of opinion and content – including the birth, two years ago, of a certain right-of-centre website. Much of this content just doesn’t fit in with the ’right way’ of thinking. 

In January I wrote about the The High-Level Group on Media and Pluralism’s (HLGMP) examination of the media. The group’s conclusion was that national media councils should “follow a set of European-wide standards and be monitored by the Commission to ensure that they comply with European values.”

Unfortunately, it seems the Commission and its useful idiots are at it again.

Speaking at a meeting on the future of broadcast media in Europe, the Irish Minister for Communications, Pat Rabbitte, said: “This debate is about the future of European media, all of it, how States regulate it, and benefit from it in terms of the preservation of culture, of language and indeed of values.”

But what exactly are these values? Unlike the HLGMP findings, this doesn’t even pretend to be about press freedoms and plurality; f you are preserving culture, language and ‘values’ then you cannot have a free broadcasting environment.

Rabbitte was speaking after a Green Paper set out the Commission’s view towards a redrafting of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive which “sets the ground rules for television broadcasting in Europe”. Amusingly, the green paper has noted that on internet filtering mechanisms: “make it more likely for people to receive the news in their area of interest, and from a perspective with which they agree [my emphasis]”.

How shocking that someone is reading content that conforms to their own prejudices. But what does this mean? Well the commissars are obviously very concerned about the poor old citizen and the correct avenues for information. The paper ludicrously warns: “This could influence the de facto choice for citizens to access to media offering representing a plurality of opinions and can lead to a situation where citizens potentially find themselves in a vulnerable situation without realizing it.”

The poor dears. Obviously, us helpless citizens would fail to find the Guardian or the BBC or another ‘right-thinking’ news source, thus making us vulnerable to that nasty propaganda dished out by the likes of the Mail, Fox News or even the Commentator.

Worryingly, one of the questions suggested for public consultation is: “Should the possibility of pre-defining choice thorough filtering mechanisms, including in search facilities, be subject to public intervention at EU level?” In other words: should the EU decide what you read or find on any broadcasting platform?

In addition, it asks if there are “specific needs to ensure the accessibility and the convenience to find and enjoy ‘general interest content’”. The BBC was set up to educate the masses with general interest content but as we have seen, the underlying guardianista approach makes it the perfect bedfellow to the EC, sneering at those who may, actually, want to have a say in the destiny of their own country. So it’s no wonder that the BBC model screams out from all over the Green Paper.

And why should there be laws about accessibility to general interest content? Actually, what is general interest content? Who decides the content? One of the beauties of the internet and multi-platform media is the very plurality that the Green Paper claims to champion.

And so we return to the heart sinking feeling – exacerbated by the fact that, when it comes to things like this, as always with the EC, it is the mission creep you have to be wary of. Yes there’s pornography and crime and monsters in the shadows; yes, there is sentiment that offends the sensibilities, and opinion masked as news; but the internet has democratized information – and that is what offends the eurocrats.

Anyone with a smart phone, laptop or tablet can find information; no longer do they have to rely on correct-thinking news sources. Information is out there. It has escaped the bottle. And that is the very reason why we must watch this directive’s progression like a hawk.

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