In the coming weeks, the European Union will decide whether to extend onerous broadcast content rules to videos offered anywhere, including wireless services, online games, and other Internet sites. Some E.U. members, such as Britain, are opposed, but much of Europe seems determined to harm itself and inadvertently promote American businesses.
The Internet does not accommodate governmental efforts to restrict consumer access to information. China has blocked access to various, presumably politically incorrect, Web sites. Iran recently limited the speed of Internet services, presumably to discourage access to the outside world from within Iran. Despite these efforts, individuals in these countries can and do reach information on the Internet that their governments would rather not be seen.
Most governments today rationally see efforts to restrict access to programming on the Internet as hopeless, unless the government happens to be a member of the E.U.
The E.U. sees video programming on the Internet and other non-broadcast forms of distribution such as YouTube as opportunities for future regulation. Current E.U. broadcast content regulation, "Television Without Frontiers," has the dual goals of protecting children and prohibiting hate speech.
Regulating broadcast television is far easier than regulating the Internet. Each day, no more than a few hundred hours of original broadcast programming is aired throughout Europe. It is difficult to imagine how the E.U. would propose to enforce rules governing video content on the Internet. YouTube viewers alone watch more than 100 millions videos daily. Despite its size, YouTube is only a small portion of Internet videos. Countless other Internet sites have video content as do hundreds of millions of cell phones equipped with cameras.
More important, the European governments can enforce regulation on broadcasters in ways that cannot be replicated on the Internet. European governments issue licenses on which penalties or even revocation can be assessed for bad behavior. Web sites, on the other hand, are neither licensed nor subject to meaningful penalties. Efforts to penalize or close Web sites engaged in unlawful or dubious activities could be momentarily successful, but the Web sites would predictably reappear under a new guise.
There are many Web sites with reprehensible content just as there are many books, magazines, and papers with objectionable content. But principled governments, out of respect for the freedom of expression, do not restrict printed content merely because it is objectionable. Even unprincipled but pragmatic governments do not restrict freedom of expression because of the futility of such efforts and the inadvertent imprimatur of legitimacy bestowed on works that are not restricted.
But the real futility of Internet content regulation is not its ineffectiveness in stopping harmful Web sites but its chilling effect on legitimate Web activities. Businesses would be discouraged from placing video files on their Web sites for fear of inadvertently angering the regulators. Businesses engaged in the distribution of video programs would reasonably worry about the potential penalties of European regulation and would rationally locate their sites elsewhere beyond the reach of E.U. regulators, such as in America. With the emigration of these businesses would go technology and knowhow. European consumers with a choice of one site whose content is regulated by the E.U. and another site, quite likely in America, which is not regulated would rationally choose the latter.
The E.U. initiative to expand "Television Without Frontiers" is cloaked in bureaucratic terms about protecting and promoting European content. If adopted, the regulatory program will suffocate European programming and, in its stead, inadvertently promote American programming. This is not to the benefit of Europeans.
Regulations that harm European consumers and businesses may ultimately harm American consumers as well. American consumers are better off with more, not fewer, choices in programming, including those that originate in Europe. The demise of European programming would benefit no consumers.
Google recently announced plans to purchase YouTube for $1.65 billion. On YouTube, videos are produced, distributed, and watched around the world, including Europe, magically without the hand of government visible anywhere. If the E.U. expands its content regulation, the innovators of the next version of YouTube or any other imaginative Web site will almost certainly not be in Europe.
A former FCC commissioner, Mr. Furchtgott-Roth is president of Furchtgott-Roth Economic Enterprises. He can be reached at [email protected]