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Internet control? An impossible dream. By Matthew Webster: Digital Life

Blog | By Matthew Webster | Nov 02, 2023

Ofcom is the quango that tries to regulate broadband, phone services and the post, as well as, in its own words, ‘keeping an eye on TV and radio’. It has an annual budget heading towards £200m and employs more than 1,000 souls.

That sounds fine, and I’d be glad if someone were keeping broadcasters in line. But, as it’s an impossible task, I rather question the point of Ofcom, at least as a regulator of content. It was established in 2003, so I doubt it expected streaming services to become so dominant. Very few of us did.

As a consequence, Ofcom’s reach into the online world is pretty modest. It does not regulate Netflix (because its European headquarters is based in the Netherlands) despite 17 million UK households subscribing to it and ‘Netflix’ being what many children think you mean when you say ‘TV’.

The trouble is, what do we mean by ‘TV’? In the old days, it was easy. You put an aerial on your roof, connected it to your TV and received whatever few channels were broadcast from a government-licensed local transmitter.

Those with permission to transmit were a comfortable, regulated monopoly. It was not for nothing that Lord Thomson of Fleet is quoted as saying that permission to broadcast commercial TV was ‘a licence to print money’.

Each regional commercial TV station revelled in its domination, and the money poured in, as there was nowhere else for it to go.

But nowadays it is quite different, and the monopoly is gone. The old stations (BBC, ITV) still exist of course and still, for the moment, transmit via aerial. However, thousands of other stations have been born, tunnelling into our houses by various means, including satellite and broadband.

It is perfectly possible nowadays to buy a television that has no capacity to receive programmes from an aerial.

Using broadband in particular allows an almost unlimited number of channels from all over the world and makes it easy for the providers to charge a subscription, if they want to.

Consequently, the sheer scale of it effectively renders any attempt at regulation of content close to futile. And that’s before you consider the avalanche of TV-style product that spews out of our phones and computers.

Even if you don’t use them yourself, TikTok, Facebook, YouTube and the like are continuously pumping out thousands of hours of programmes. While Ofcom has some power to force these platforms to protect us from harmful material, it is such a vast undertaking that the labours of Hercules would have been an easier assignment. About 34 million videos are uploaded to TikTok every single day and that’s just one of many similar services. I don’t see how anyone could police that.

To be fair to Ofcom, it is aware of the problem. But its solution, a major increase in its powers to encompass all video-delivery services (outlined in a White Paper in 2022), does nothing to solve the magnitude of the problem.

You can enact all the laws you like but it’s enforcement that’s important. I just can’t see how that is possible unless it can be reliably automated somehow, which at present is impossible.

Unless that happens, Ofcom’s rather feeble ‘keeping an eye on TV’ ambition will be the most we can expect. I wonder if there is any point to Ofcom, at least as a regulator of content.

It will shortly be about as relevant as whoever still regulates hansom-cabs.