Clause 241 - Meaning of ''radio licensable content services''

Communications Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 16th January 2003.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Conservative, South Cambridgeshire

I do not want to hold up proceedings, but some of what I was planning to say about clause 226 is technically part of the subject covered by clause 241. Clause 226 covered the meaning of television licensable content service, and we are dealing now with radio licensable content service. Under clause 241, the meaning of radio licensable content service is qualified by reference to

''its availability for reception by members of the public'',

which is defined under clause 347. We will, in effect, debate such matters again, although we do not have the benefit of amendments being tabled to the clause, so I want to put down a marker.

The Minister will recall that, during the discussions of the Joint Committee, substantial effort was directed at the scope of the licensed sector for television and radio, on the basis that we must try to define or specify the boundary between broadcasting and the internet, without the intention of seeking to regulate the internet. If members of the Committee have not read paragraphs 286 to 298 of the Joint Committee's report, I hope that they will take the trouble to do so. The issues involved are well set out there.

As for not seeking to regulate the internet, I am not saying that certain aspects of it should not be subject to scrutiny. The principle of the argument is that what is illegal offline should be illegal online. In recent years, much legislation has gone through the House to try to achieve those objectives. Through a process of self-regulation, the internet has evolved beyond that which is generally illegal. In any case, the internet is international, and therefore difficult to regulate on a purely national basis. Its use by individuals is based on the fact that internet material is, in effect, pulled off the system by them, rather than pushed to them in the manner of broadcasting.

Can we find a description that defines more accurately the distinction between people drawing down material from the internet at their discretion and material pushed towards the public simultaneously by way of broadcasting? To help the discussion, I draw attention to the Joint Committee's report and evidence taken from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. The example I give is that of ''Big Brother'', which could be seen on Channel 4, seen more extensively on E4, and seen online live—a fact to which my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford referred. In the Secretary of State's view, the material on Channel 4 would be subject to all the broadcast regulatory applications, so it would be subject fully to public service obligations. Transmission on E4 would be licensable content subject to tier 1 regulation, and the material on the internet would not be subject to regulation because it would not be a licensable content service.

There is a problem with the definitions. Clause 347 is headed ''Meaning of 'available for reception by members of the public''' However, services will not be regarded as available for reception by members of the public if three conditions are met. The third of those conditions is:

''that the individual selections . . . do not include any that are limited to electing to be one of the recipients of material . . . offered for reception on the basis''

that it has been

''selected by the provider . . . for broadcasting or distribution simultaneously, or virtually so''.

In the case of ''Big Brother'', the material presented on the internet was specifically designed to be received simultaneously by members of the public. It could hardly be otherwise.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

I listened to what the hon. Gentleman said earlier about the difference between a broadcast and the internet—he said that, in one, the service was sent to the individual and, in the other, the individual reached out to receive it. However, in the example that he is giving now, a key concern must be the cross-promotion of the different media. When people watched ''Big Brother'', they were encouraged to go online to see it live. As the hon. Gentleman has said, such live service is not controlled and does not have a watershed. That leads to consideration of the fact that, increasingly, broadcasts will be available with a click on the right web address. That seems to be a different type of internet broadcast to the one that the hon. Gentleman is referring to.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Order. The flow of the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) has been interrupted, so it is a good time to point out that although we have been more or less in order when discussing clause 241, and although I do not yet propose to let my judgment be coloured when considering the hon. Gentleman's requests, he is coming perilously close to trying to have his cake and eat it, too.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Conservative, South Cambridgeshire

I quite understand, Mr. Gale. I am using this opportunity to put an argument to the Minister. We will come to clause 347 later. The Minister will decide to what extent he wishes to engage in the debate and perhaps accept some of the arguments that the Joint Committee and I made—arguments that the Government have not taken up and responded to.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

My hon. Friend is raising an interesting argument that develops one that I raised during discussion on an earlier clause. He cited ''Big Brother'', which is obviously a television programme rather than a radio programme. However, what has happened with ''Big Brother'' could equally happen with a radio programme. A programme could go out in one format that is subject to regulation and in another format that is not. While ''Big Brother'' was being broadcast on E4, during the live transmission late at night, a discussion among remaining members of the house was blanked by the broadcaster. Only visual images were broadcast, not sound. I do not

know why that was done, although I have heard speculation about the subject that was being discussed and why it was felt inappropriate to broadcast it on television.

At the time, the matter came under the ITC or the Broadcasting Standards Commission; in future, such a matter will come under Ofcom. However, there will be no equivalent regulation of the internet broadcasts. The problem applies to radio content as well as to television content.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Conservative, South Cambridgeshire

My hon. Friend is right. If one were broadcasting live on the internet and on the radio, in a licensable content service, one might have to block material in the regulated sector. If one had to block material because it might give rise to civil action, it would not follow that one should be able to broadcast it with impunity on the internet. Exactly the same considerations apply.

The intention is that the tier 1 obligations, of which that might be an example, do not flow on to internet material. The question is whether, under the Bill, we can set up a structure for the longer term that genuinely distinguishes between radio licensable content services, which should be regulated to the extent that the Bill intends them to be, and other material that happens to be on the internet. I am working towards the push-and-pull distinction. The problem is that the Bill cannot simply say that material that is pulled, not pushed, is internet material and therefore not to be regulated.

I shall not trespass on your patience, Mr. Gale, by dwelling on the structure of the amendments, but I am trying to say that a sequence of selections is the closest that we can get to that. The question is what kind of sequence and selections constitute pulled, not pushed, material. We all know that we press a button to turn a television on: that is not a selection; it is merely activating a network. We then choose a channel, but that should not be regarded as pulling material, because the material is pre-packaged. However, as the hon. Member for Ceredigion implied, if one is listening to a radio programme and presses a red button on the digital radio to get a running commentary or additional service, that might be regarded as internet material that is pulled down.

Perhaps we should not get so hung up on defining the internet and should instead define circumstances in which we do not need long-term highly regulatory structures that are designed to frustrate people receiving legal material provided by others. That is quite distinct from broadcasting, which is, in effect, the prior packaging and accumulation of material that is to be received by large numbers of people simultaneously. I hope that the Minister will explain how that can be accomplished under the Bill, but I think it more likely that he will say that we need further amendments if the Bill is genuinely to achieve that objective.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport 3:15 pm, 16th January 2003

That was a fascinating description of how quickly things are moving. Whenever I try to describe the distinction between what we are covering in the Bill and what the internet provides, I say that

there is between the two a very wobbly frontier that keeps moving and will continue to change quickly.

This morning, I offered to write to the hon. Gentleman about the amendments grouped under clause 226 on television licensable comment services. I shall certainly do that, but I shall now try to ensure that the letter also gives a full response on the issues that he has just raised. I shall now try to stick more closely to clause 241. I am confused by the way that we moved from clause to clause in the last sitting and this one, although it is important that we have broader debates such as this, because the clauses are linked all the way through the Bill.

Clause 241 defines radio licensable content services so as to include all sound programmes broadcast primarily for reception by members of the public from a satellite or through an electronic communications network to places in the EEA, whether in analogue or digital form. As the hon. Gentleman told us, the term

''available for reception by members of the public''

is defined in clause 347 so as to exclude one-to-one services on cable, satellite or multiplex services. The effect is that radio on demand, for example, will not require licensing as an RLCS service. In the past, satellite and cable services have required different licences. Under the Bill, both types of service will be subject to one type of licence. That is why the clause should be added to the Bill.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

I am familiar with the concept of video on demand, but less familiar with the concept of radio on demand. Simply for my own information, what is radio on demand and how does it work?

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

I shall explain how I understand it. When I am working on my computer, I often tune in via the internet to a jazz station, albeit not Jazz FM because all too often that does not play jazz anymore.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

It is indeed. As a consequence, I can access radio via the internet, although it might not be radio that is broadcast in this country.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

That is a very different concept to video on demand. I can choose what I watch if I use video on demand: for example, I can choose to watch a specific film, which will be sent down to me. From the Minister's explanation of radio on demand, I could not choose to listen to a specific piece of music, but would simply receive a radio station.

Photo of Kim Howells Kim Howells Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Culture, Media & Sport

The hon. Gentleman will have heard many adverts on the BBC suggesting that if people want to hear a programme again, it can be pulled down at any time from the web. The system is in its infancy but it is available because the BBC offers the service at the moment.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale

Does that mean that we could get the radio programme ''Dead Ringers'' on demand via the internet? If so, could we get a computer in the Room in order to entertain us throughout the afternoon?

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

Now I know what the phrase refers to, I confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for

Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) that the programme is available on the BBC website.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 241 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 242 ordered to stand part of the Bill.