The Wrong Way to Clean Up the Internet

Having successfully fought several privacy battles, granting people the right to have themselves taken off Google search, and to have their records deleted from databases, it looks as if the European Union may soon want to regulate and license what you can watch on YouTube or other video content sites, and the audio-visual content you can publish. The impact of this would, of course, be felt way beyond Europe. Just as the GDPR affects anyone who is trading with an EU country, so the EUs plans to control video ‘channels’ are likely to affect the entire internet.

Few people read last year’s proposed amendments to European regulations governing the content of audiovisual media services (AVMS). However, some of those who struggled through it, aided presumably by oxygen cylinders, suddenly came to full consciousness with a shock of horror, warning of “Twenty-eight versions of Facebook, a nanny state and censorship of social networks…“. Strong words. Are these fears warranted? If so, how did we get here?

AVMS has, since 2010, dictated how broadcast media services are licensed and therefore regulated by each EU member country, at point of origin, to ensure that this content is free from hate speech, religious discrimination, and content harmful to minors. Having done so, it can then be transmitted throughout the EU without further regulation. The amendments extend this regulation to on-demand internet video ‘channels’, affording viewers there the same protections against harmful content.

All this sounds laudable, in theory. Unfortunately, we are dealing here with censorship, which inevitably suffers from scope-creep and special-interest lobbying. Certain amendments, for example, have strayed towards recommendations for safeguarding the “moral development” of children, where there are no legal definitions of what that means. Also, it is vague as to the video content it wants to censor, saying for example that it could include “… those services the principal purpose of which is the provision of programmes to inform, entertain or educate”. This excludes nothing.

If you operate a YouTube video channel for SQL Server training, might you now need a license? How about a personal video channel showing how to cook pasta or do DIY? The bureaucracy involved would, by itself, effectively shut down most of these channels. The AVMS proposals suggest the unlikely option of deciding each application on a “case by case” basis.

It feels like an odd throwback to twentieth-century national censorship. Even then, it was impractical in Europe. Ever wondered why Dutch people speak such good English? Dutch radio was so regulated and so boring that instead they would simply tune into UK radio broadcasts, and picked up the ‘perceived’ English accents from listening there. Nowadays, in the same way, online users can simply use a proxy server based in a less tightly-regulated legislative area.

Without doubt, there must be international censorship, and internet content must continue to be subject to it. Self-regulation has often been limp, but it is surely in everyone’s interests to come up with a realistic and effective way of enforcing it, probably crowdsourced, before the Federal and EU regulations step in to fill the vacuum?

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