Tuesday 24 October 2017

Steve Dempsey: European Union's digital stance is a balancing act

EU ministers have agreed revisions to the EU audiovisual media services directive.
EU ministers have agreed revisions to the EU audiovisual media services directive.
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

On Tuesday, EU ministers agreed revisions to the EU audiovisual media services directive. I know, it hardly sounds riveting. But bear with me here. According to the proposals, digital services that rely heavily on video - yes, that includes Facebook, Netflix and YouTube - will now be governed by the same regulatory framework as broadcasters like RTE, Canal+ and Germany's ZDF.

The rules, initially proposed last May, aimed to promote European films, protect children, enshrine the independence of audiovisual regulators into EU law and crack down on hate speech. "The way we watch TV or videos may have changed, but our values don't," said Günther Oettinger, Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society last year. "With these new rules, we will uphold media pluralism, the independence of audiovisual regulators and will make sure incitement to hatred will have no room on video-sharing platforms. We also want to ensure a level-playing field, responsible behaviour, trust and fairness in the online platforms environment."

But there seems to have been some scope creep since last year. This week's revisions mean that TV broadcasters, video on-demand services and social media services that provide a significant amount of video will all be covered by the same rules. Critics say this one-size-fits-all approach is unwieldy, smacks of protectionism and damages net neutrality.

But there is an upside, particularly for European media firms. Video platforms will now need to feature a minimum of 30pc of European-sourced content. Last year the number that was mooted was 20pc, so this is a considerable hike. The rationale for the change was that the promotion of European works is a cornerstone of cultural policy in Europe. These quotas mean the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime will need to buy or commission considerable amounts of local content for the European market.

Of course, the likes of Netflix and co aren't fans of quotas. They would argue that quotas promote parochial programming, rather than content more likely to appeal to a global audience. To make things worse, individual member states will also be able to make video platforms contribute financially to video production in the country where they're based, and in countries where they target audiences. This is another contentious issue, which could result in an uneven playing field for the online and pan-European platforms. Customers in one market may end up subsidising those in another.

Also, like state and commercial broadcasters, social media companies like Google's YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are set to become legally obliged to counter hate speech, content that incites of justifies terrorism and which harms the "moral development" of children on their platforms.

While social media companies and international video services are undoubtedly irked, European bureaucrats are delighted with themselves. The Maltese culture minister, Owen Bonnici, had this to say: "We are very proud to have reached an agreement on audio-visual media services. This is a complex directive which touches on very sensitive issues such as the internal market, fundamental rights and freedoms, cultural diversity and the protection of minors."

These proposals need to be agreed with the European Parliament before they can become law. Then individual countries will then start transposing the directive into national law. But there's a pattern emerging here. Europe is taking a tough stance on citizens' data and safety. The introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation next year will add onerous overheads to companies that keep European citizen's data. Legislation was recently approved in Germany which would see social platforms slapped with fines of up to €50m if hate speech is not promptly removed within 24 hours of being flagged. And despite Brexit, the UK also is also on board. The Home Affairs Committee parliamentary committee concluded last month that "the biggest and richest social media companies are shamefully far from taking sufficient action to tackle illegal and dangerous content, to implement proper community standards or to keep their users safe". It also called for the publication of quarterly transparency reports, which cover safeguarding, enforcement of standards, and the number of staff working on safety.

There is a fine balance, however, between protecting culture and protectionism, ensuring appropriate regulation and safeguarding innovation that supports investment and innovation in digital media.

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