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Europe eyes new rules for online platforms

TechCrunch TechCrunch 25/05/2016 Natasha Lomas

The European Union’s executive body has today set out a series of proposals for new rules that would apply to a broad range of online platforms, from the likes of YouTube to Google to eBay, as part of ongoing efforts to boost competitiveness in the region under its Digital Single Market Strategy.

The proposals follow a year long assessment by the European Commission of online platforms, after which it says it has concluded that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is not appropriate to maximize consumer benefits while ensuring effective regulation across all the different types of platforms — so it says it will rather look at each area where it can act “from telecoms to copyright rules, to address any specific problems in a future-proof way for all market players”.

Among the proposed changes is a new set of audiovisual rules — with the stated aim of achieving a better balance between rules that apply to traditional broadcasters vs online video-on-demand providers and video-sharing platforms like YouTube. Key among the EC’s concerns here is safeguarding minors.

It says it wants video-sharing platforms to help come up with a code of conduct for the industry relating to protecting minors online. For the most harmful content (gratuitous violence and pornography) it wants to strict control measures applied to online platforms, such as age verification or pin codes.

Under the proposals there would also be a stronger role for audiovisual regulators.

At this stage the EC is not including social network platforms such as Facebook — where plenty of video-sharing and viewing now takes place of course — in its definition of online platforms but it does say this could change in future.  “If a particular social media provider meets all the characteristics of a video-sharing platform, they will be covered as such,” it notes.

These proposals are an update to the existing Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AMSD), which has governed audiovisual media in the region for almost 30 years. The existing directive also includes stipulations to encourage cultural diversity and the free circulation of content within Europe, which the EC wants to see bleeding over to the online platforms that viewers are increasingly turning to in the digital era.

Under current rules, for example, TV broadcasters are obliged to broadcast at least 50 per cent share of European works (including national content) in viewing time. This proportion will remain unchanged under the proposal but VOD services would get more formal obligations — with a proposed requirement that they have at least a 20 per cent share of European content in their catalogues, and give good visibility to European content in any offers.

Elsewhere, the Commission has also been looking at the rules around ad content, and says it wants greater flexibility for online platforms to use product placement and sponsorship — with the caveat that they must keep viewers informed at the start or end of a program. Product placement will still be forbidden in content with a significant children’s audience.

Also today the Commission has set out additional proposals for updating ecommerce rules — with a push to prevent unjustified geoblocking, such as discriminating on price based on nationality or residency, by online platforms.

In moves aimed at boosting trust in ecommerce it also wants search engines to be required to “clearly distinguish” paid placements from organic search results. And the industry to step-up voluntary efforts to tackle fake/misleading online reviews.

Increasing price-transparency and regulatory oversight of cross-border parcel delivery services to boost regional ecommerce is another priority.

The Commission is also focusing on controlling the spread of hate speech on online platforms — an issue which has again bubbled to the fore in Europe in recent times, following the refugee crisis.

A code of conduct the EC has been working on with online platforms is due to be presented in the coming weeks, it said today.

The package of measures are proposals at this stage with European law requiring EU Member States to vote on and agree them, and transpose them into national legislation — a process that can take multiple years.

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