Saturday, 18 May 2013

On demand? TV-like? Backdoor censorship?

Here's an odd thing for people in the UK. It's caused a stir in the video community, especially places that offer 'on demand' style video services that can be deemed to be 'TV-like'.
There's an authority you may never have heard of, ATVOD - the Authority for Tevevision on Demand, which was set up as part of the implementation of the Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2009 and 2010. 
Recently it's been flexing its muscles in various directions, presumably testing the boundaries of its powers. The head power it has is that the provers of 'TV-like' services are required to notify ATVOD of what they do and then adhere to its rules.
It's fined Playboy TV and Demand Adult for repeatedly failing to implement access barriers to under-18s. The fines were actually levied by Ofcom under the Communications Act 2003, since essentially Ofcom has delegated some of its powers to ATVOD but then acts as the administrative body able to levy fines for breaches of ATVOD's rules.
It's tried, though failed on appeal, to have the BBC Food and BBC Top Gear channels on YouTube defined as TV-like. This determination was based on relatively technical issues such as production values, brand name, continuity and narrative, opening sequence, music on the soundtrack, length of clips and the extent of bricolage in the presentation of individual clips. If the detail interests you, read the article referenced at the end of this post.
For various reasons I won't go into here, Ofcom's decision seems to have pitched the definition of what 'counts' as on-demand TV closer to streaming TV services that might compete directly with TV, than to user-generated content of the kind you might expect on YouTube or Vimeo.
But ATVOD has also started to get interested in places such as Clips4Sale and the individual (adult) videos posted there. ATVOD has started to contact some of the people who have material on Clips4Sale asking them to consider whether they should register as on-demand programme service providers (and thus pay registration fees). If they consider they don't need to register, they are required nonetheless to complete a declaration explaining why they don't need to register.
This has become a hot topic on Fetlife (because some of those involved have published all the emails) and does raise questions, not so much about general principles such as stopping under-age people from watching porn, but about the way they're being enforced. Should anyone who wants to make a reasonably proficient and thought-out video on any topic have to register themselves as a service provider? Should they, if they upload their work, have to contact an authority to declare they don't need to register?
In fact, given that technology now does mean someone can sit at home with a camera and a PC and make videos that do have TV-like characteristics, and put them out on the internet to compete with TV - and users can download them to watch on their TV - how valid is the distinction between what is and isn't TV anyway? Why shouldn't people seek to compete with established TV? Shouldn't regulation ignore the question of how material gets streamed or made available, and just address matters such as whether adult material is reasonably protected behind warnings, and whether video services are provided via commercial services that have, for example, significant third-party advertising content as opposed to 'cottage industries'? Should the burden of regulation fall - if it needs to fall anywhere - on the 'service providers' such as Clips4Sale, YouTube and so on rather than individuals or groups who upload their materials? How would ATVOD cope with someone who uses Google Glass, for example, to stream everything they do and see to a website (including ads for services and products that may appear on the Glass screen) and then have edited clips - perhaps with embedded ads - available?
This seems to be a situation where the developments in technology are happening very quickly and the regulatory regime, albeit only a few years old, is already several generations behind what's feasible and what's happening now. There may yet need to be a debate about whether the regulations are too much of a blunt instrument to avoid getting labelled as 'backdoor censorship' due to declaration and registration requirements, if ATVOD's interpretations of these are maintained.
Watch this space.

Useful further links: article on Ofcom rulings

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