Speak up now before Ofcom becomes a tyrant

The new watchdog Ofcom is setting out its remit with little input from the new media sector. Act now or regret our apathy.

Sit back and accept a new regulator and new rules without a fight? It wouldn’t happen in my home country, the US, but it’s happening here.

At a recent meeting with the DTI to clarify what the newly created media watchdog Ofcom (the Office of Communications) will mean to the new media industry, the picture emerged of a super-regulator with the power to impose, retrospectively, fines of up to ten per cent of turnover.

All media, including websites, will be subjected to the kind of scrutiny currently undertaken by the ITC (Independent Television Commission). There may well be a consumer panel to act as arbiters of public taste, but the composition of such a panel remains undefined. Meanwhile, cross-platform regulation and rules requiring ISPs to have some accountability for content are likely.

In its last manifesto, Labour pledged a kitemarking system for Internet sites to help the battle against online paedophiles. Yet content labelling was already a part of Ofcom’s brief – perhaps along the lines of film classifications. As new technologies are particularly popular with teenagers and tweenies (aged nine to 12), it is questionable whether such labelling, reliant to a great degree on parental monitoring, will be sufficient.

Similarly, if a company is planning any kind of proprietary TV content, Ofcom’s watchful eye will be on it. It is already clear that if companies start broadcasting traditional TV channels over conventional media, such as those planned by Sainsbury’s and Boots, they will need a licence to do so. But acceptable content provision through new media formats remains undefined. Identical content, broadcast over the Net, raises an interesting problem.

The boundaries between a high street retailer and broadcaster, film company and Internet company, telecoms company and content provider are blurring. Yet while media ownership rules were played down pre-election, Ofcom will have a role in defining access, ownership and price control.

Ofcom is coming, whether we’re ready or not, yet the DTI has seen precious little representation from the new media industry. Crying about the rules that Ofcom imposes once they are in place will reflect badly on us. Unless we join forces and make our voices heard, Ofcom could become an organisation without the speed or industry understanding required to regulate the new media sector.

Nancy Prendergast is co-managing director of new media PR consultancy, Gnash Communications

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