Lord Currie, the chairman of Ofcom, has suggested that the media watchdog may have to cease regulating programme content as television starts to be broadcast over the internet.
Senior politicians predicted radical amendments to the Communications Act, enacted in July last year, yesterday and a compete overhaul of Ofcom's role as a result of the expected expansion in television broadcasts over high speed, broadband internet connections.
Lord Currie said that Parliament would have to debate the future of the regulator and the Communications Act. He made his comments while speaking at a dinner attended by industry chief executives and senior investment bankers, in London on Wednesday.
He said the fact that media organisations, such as the BBC and ITV, would soon start transmitting programmes over the internet would eventually take television broadcasting out of Ofcom's remit. Lord Currie said: "We don't regulate the internet. We regulate television, radio and telecoms networks. There will have to be a debate in Parliament about whether we regulate the internet. I'm not sure that's feasible or desirable."
Lord Puttnam, the former film producer and Labour peer at the centre of the debates during the Act's original Parliamentary passage, said: "There's no question he [Lord Currie] is right. It's not even a debate, it has to happen whether it's two years or three."
With the advent of high-speed internet connections using telephone and data networks, such as BT's, broadcasters can transmit any programme material into homes and workplaces completely free of regulatory interference. The material is watched on television screens connected to the internet via a personal computer or set-top box. Mobile phone content is also outside Ofcom's remit.
Lord Currie said: "We won't be able to exercise the same regulatory power. Perhaps we have to think about not so much regulating content but helping people navigate. That allows us to get out of content regulation."
He used the analogy of "Sky Plus meets Google" as a future vision for television and the regulator's role. His suggestion envisages people watching what they want, when they want but with the help of a search engine to help them navigate the plethora of content.
Lord Puttnam said: "It's what we used to call convergence. It's a different kind of reality to what we are used to and its crashing in very fast. There are aspects that will require legislation and there are areas that won't. If I were Ofcom I would be saying to Parliament, 'you need to tell us what you want us to do and what specifically you don't want us to do and give us the powers to do it'. What we can't do is keep silent in the face of technological change."
Ofcom itself took the radical step yesterday of suggesting a new £300m-a-year Public Service Publisher to rival the likes of the BBC that could distribute content on some digital platforms that are totally outside its remit, such as the internet. The Public Service Publisher is part of Ofcom's new framework for public service broadcasting published yesterday.
Jonathan Lambeth, at AOL UK, said: "Now is not a bad time for the debate to begin. It's an opportunity to go back to the beginning and ask what is it exactly that we need to regulate. Is it the content or the delivery mechanism?"
A spokesman for Ofcom said: "If such a debate has to be had, we would welcome the opportunity to play a part in it."
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