Thursday 27 April 2017

Whether you've a telly or not, it will be fascinating to watch them trying to enforce this...

Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in hit Netflix series 'House of Cards'
Robin Wright as Claire Underwood in hit Netflix series 'House of Cards'
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Leave aside the question of whether it's fair to make computer owners pay a TV licence. The real challenge is: how on Earth can it be enforced?

Take a typical apartment block. Most of the units will have a computer of some sort and a broadband subscription. We all know this. But proving it in court could be very difficult, if not impossible.

Even if inspectors detect a broadband subscription, how will they know it's not simply to provide for a large iPhone, which is supposedly to remain exempt?

After all, TV licences are only required for physical video gadgets, not subscriptions. And in case you think no-one watches a TV on phones, think again: it's the fastest-growing category in portable screen viewing. The upcoming iPhone 8 will likely have a screen almost 6 inches/15 cm in diameter, close to the size of many tablets.

It's a similar challenge for traditional houses. At present, TV inspectors have some chance of detecting evaders because TVs are usually visible through the windows of front-facing living rooms. But computers are often kept in bedrooms or other places. Large laptops, even if kept downstairs, may not be identifiable if folded over.

These are the practical problems that have beset the UK. There, you must have a UK TV licence to watch programmes on the BBC iPlayer. But it's impossible to enforce.

For instance, last week I was in the UK covering a conference. In the evening, I logged on to BBC's iPlayer to try to watch its stunning 'Wild Atlantic Way' programme. The only regulatory check my iPad was subject to was a question: 'Are you a BBC licence fee payer?' Clicking 'yes' would give me access to the programme with no more checks.

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It's a bit like websites asking users to click a button "confirming" they're over 18 to access mature content. The whole thing is a purely notional form of enforcement.

Obviously, there are more thorough technical ways the Government could seek to prove a laptop is being used in a private premises. But many of these methods would scarcely be permissible under modern Irish data protection law.

There is also a certain irony to this whole computers-as-tellies tax expansion. Of the one in 10 (which is a very conservative estimate) who no longer watches physical televisions, it's a fair bet many do not watch RTÉ or much of any scheduled television.

Netflix, one of the key drivers for small screen TV viewing, has hundreds of thousands of Irish subscribers.

Soon, Sky will launch an on-demand movie and TV service for portable devices.

Even the mooted 11-inch cut-off criteria is odd. Most broadcasters acknowledge a large proportion of online streaming views come from consumer iPads.

Why might these be exempt, while your 12-inch Dell work laptop is taxed as an RTÉ TV screen?

One unintended consequence may even be that communal TV-watching, which is one of the last things families still do together, may now become a taxable event, whereas solitary viewing on iPads is free.

There is a defence to be made in favour of public broadcasting. And the Government has a difficult and thankless task in trying to make the sums add up.

But taxing computers may be a hugely ineffective way of realising any of the required shortfall in capital needed to keep such broadcasting at the required funding level.

Irish Independent

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