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EU's online Red Tape pledge

You must all behave yourselves - or we'll legislate

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While many scare stories about EU regulation turn out to be myths - here's one that unlike "bendy bananas" may well come true.

Europe's most powerful quango, the European Commission, says it wants to accelerate a "single market" for online music, film, and games - and is threatening legislation to bring it about. Although the EU's Telecoms commissioner Viviane Reding sees the market for digital entertainment quadrupling (to €8.3bn by 2010), she feels the bureaucrats need to get involved anyway.

In a statement issued yesterday, the EC identified four areas for action - with the most ominous being a good behaviour pledge for online service providers.

Content creators should be able to license material for use across Europe in one go, says the EC. So says everyone else - and it's a call we've heard for over a decade now. Licensing is currently a labyrinthine process - but progress is slowly and painfully being made.

Two years ago, the EC commenced formal anti-trust proceedings against CISAC, the global umbrella group representing authors' collection societies. The wrangle is currently over rates. Naturally, large media companies want to drive the rates down as low as they possibly can. The EC would love to dismantle the national collection societies, and appoint a sub-quango to do the job itself.

Two other areas concern the availability of material. The EC is "strongly encouraging stakeholders to find innovative and collaborative solutions to exploit the market for content online" - uh, huh - while insisting that the DRM technology used is interoperable and clearly marked. Here the bureaucrats are flapping their arms about, as a substitute for doing some serious thinking.

But ominously for ISPs and service providers, the EC plans to introduce red tape, or what it calls "co-operation procedures" and "codes of conduct" "between access/service providers, right holders and consumers to ensure not only the widespread offer of attractive content online, but also adequate protection of copyrighted works, and close cooperation on the fight against piracy and unauthorised file-sharing".

This strategy would look broken had it been announced in 1995, when the commission might (just) have been forgiven for believing that walled garden services such as CompuServe would be the way we consumed digital media on home PCs. To read it in 2008 is quite bizarre.

So instead of imagining an economy where DRM isn't necessary, and where both consumers and rights holders can flourish, the EC has opted to regulate the stable door - long after the horse has bolted.

The commission is really seeking to carve out a permanent regulatory role for itself (and in the case of royalty collection, a revenue-raising opportunity) where today it's evident that such an extra layer of regulation is quite unnecessary. The rest is simply a pious serenade of good intentions. ISPs, who are already on guard against the Meddling Ms Reding, won't find much comfort in this. ®

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