Sunday

17th Feb 2019

Opinion

EU audiovisual reform will create a nanny state

  • The proposal could create 28 versions of Facebook, a nanny state and censorship of the Internet. (Photo: Spencer E Holtaway)

Twenty-eight versions of Facebook, a nanny state and censorship of the internet: those could be the consequences if the European Parliament's position on the directive regulating the provision of audiovisual media services (AVMS) enters into force.

On Monday (15 May), the two German co-rapporteurs, Sabine Verheyen from the centre-right EPP group, and Social Democrat Petra Kammerevert, received the parliament's mandate to begin informal trilogue negotiations with the European Commission and Council of the EU on the final version of the text.

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Their report was originally adopted on 25 April, at a meeting of the parliament's committee on culture and education (Cult), by 18 out of 33 members. According to the parliament's new rules of procedure, the committee report constitutes the house's position, without the need for a broader parliamentary discussion.

The file will be put on the table this autumn, while Estonia holds the council presidency. My country, made world-famous for its broad implementation of digital technologies, ironically risks going down in history as the accomplice to the establishment of state censorship of social networks in Europe.

But first thing's first.

The directive

The initiative to update the audiovisual media services (AVMS) directive came from the European Commission and was completely justified.

Much has changed since the initial rules for audiovisual media in Europe were first put in place. In particular, the Internet has challenged the role of television as a source of information and as an advertising platform.

But the reform was compromised when the parliament appointed the two rapporteurs, who are both board members of Germany's public broadcaster. This means that not only do they represent a single country, but they also have an obvious conflict of interests.

The rapporteurs have turned the commission's proposal into an instrument to destroy the competitive advantage of the internet over normal television.

Moreover, the definition of a video-sharing platform (VSP) has been changed in such a way that all social networks with a video function are also subsumed into the category. If today's version of the AVMS directive regulates YouTube, tomorrow it will also cover Facebook, Twitter and the like.

Social networks, and their users, do not suffer from a lack of regulation. Even today, Facebook removes posts containing incitement to violence and hatred, promoting drugs, pornography, and so on. It also has its own set of rules in terms of advertisement.

The biggest change will be a ban on so-called product placement: the exposure of a product of a certain brand.

How exactly Brussels will complicate the lives of food and beauty bloggers will only be known by the end of trilogue talks, but it is already clear that the on-camera cooking of Barilla pasta in a pot by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver will no longer be possible.

Think of the children

Another change to the directive is the proposal to supervise the moral development of children.

It sounds good, as long as you forget that there is no such thing as a legal definition of moral development.

Already today, social networks are required to block posts that are harmful to the physical or mental development of children - say, for example, the Blue Whale suicide challenge, a sinister online "game" that promotes self-harm.

Well, according to the rapporteurs, the state will now supervise such moral development.

The colourful map of the EU features a dozen countries where there are night and day differences in views on morality.

Are single mothers morally correct? We have just had a discussion about that in Estonia. What about sexual education in school? Or homosexuality? Disputes about euthanasia? Contraception? Abortion? Criticism of power?

The list could be continued indefinitely. And, given recent electoral tendencies, one can be sure that there are people wishing to use the regulation so that even adults will not see posts that their government has deemed immoral.

Meanwhile, social networks are a mini-model of the common digital market - the very space without borders that helps us understand each other and makes us stronger. The new directive, however, is aimed at building walls.

Who will control all this? Monitoring bodies, or national regulatory authorities. The rapporteurs did not take on board a proposed requirement to make these bodies independent, both legally and functionally.

Estonia's position, as presented to the council, coincides with the position of the rapporteurs.

I hope this is a misunderstanding, because anything else means we are ready to entrust control over mass media, social networks and moral development of our children to a group of MEPs and board members of public broadcasters, appointed with the blessing of the ruling coalitions.

I have raised only three of at least ten absurd provisions contained in the parliament's position, which amounts to a total of 70 pages.

Documents of this size are read only by MEPs directly working with them. In our case, this means the two main and seven shadow rapporteurs. These nine form the line of their political groups, reporting on the file at their meetings.

Unfortunately, neither the centre-right EPP nor the centre-left Social Democrats have ever discussed the AVMS directive, mainly because they believe files in the Cult committee are non-controversial.

At group meetings, everyone wants to speak about the budget or Brexit, not something called the "review of the audiovisual media services directive".

The rapporteurs took advantage of this.

A bad reform

But the unfortunate reform can still be avoided.

As Alde coordinator in the culture committee and shadow rapporteur on the directive, I will do my best to re-open the mandate.

Our group, with the support of radical-left GUE, eurosceptic EFDD and conservative ECR, has requested that the issue is voted on by the plenary.

We will do our best to convince other MEPs, but we have little time: the vote should take place on Thursday.

And half of the British MEPs - who share our position - will not be in Strasbourg, as the UK election campaign is in full swing.

There is a serious chance that the European Parliament's official position on audiovisual services will be to legalise state censorship in social networks.

Yana Toom is a liberal MEP from Estonia, a shadow rapporteur for the audiovisual media services directive and the liberal coordinator in the European Parliament's committee of culture and education.

Focus

Facebook censors Norway's PM

The US company is accused of censorship after it deleted an iconic Vietnam War photo and removed criticism it received over the decision. Norway's prime minister was not spared.

Letter

An open letter to ministers on the audiovisual directive

The ongoing revision of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive is a key opportunity to reduce exposure of Europe's children to advertisements of health-harmful products – an opportunity that should not be missed.

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