Issues of self-regulation for web publishers and broadcasters have been explored in a series of reports produced by the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy (PCMLP) project at Oxford University and published on selfregulation.info.
The project explores the progress and effectiveness of self-regulation and focuses on key areas of illegal content, such as obscenity, defamation and copyright infringement, and access to content that may be harmful to minors, such as gambling.
Developments in broadband and mobile content have significantly increased the challenge to regulators dealing with new publishing and broadcasting channels.
"Regulation of media is, in my opinion, one of the hottest topics in the field of law, and I think we are likely to see continuing battles between regulation and self-regulation," said Ola-Kristian Hoff, consultant to the PCMLP project.
The research team, which included research professionals from Norway, the Netherlands, UK, US, Germany and Argentina, concluded that there is no universal formula for effective self-regulation because codes must be designed for specific sectors and for the legal framework of each country.
Self-regulation models in the UK - such as those produced by Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA) and OfCom, the UK telecoms industry regulator - are very advanced compared with similar schemes in Europe and the US.
Successful pan-European codes of practice have also been developed and implemented by organisations such as European Internet Service Providers' Association (EuroISPA) and Internet Hotline Providers (INHOPE).
But internet regulatory organisations may be suffering from a lack of credibility, says the report, and smaller business often do not have the resources to develop regulatory guidelines.
"Though larger firms, such as BT, MSN and AOL are clearly better resourced, joining an industry association will help to equalise the playing field somewhat," project consultant Chris Marsden told dotJournalism.
"The incentive for smaller businesses is that it is good marketing practice to show that you're safe. That's why OfCom accredits sites."
Organisations adopt regulations for a variety of reasons, found the report. Building public trust and consumer confidence was cited as a common objective, as was achieving a mark of professional status. Organisations also felt that adopting regulatory codes was an alternative to state regulation, and also felt that it helped to avoid legal liability for their content.
Overall, the report makes 18 recommendations for media regulators, 12 of which relate solely to internet content.
Among those recommendations was a concern over the actions of ISPs in practising their own 'privatisation of free expression' by monitoring content.
Judgements made by ISPs regarding the control of content must be subject to national law, says the report, which also explored the 'notice and take down' procedure. Under this procedure, ISPs are obliged to remove content that violates copyright if the violation has been identified by the copyright owner.
This process does not allow publishers any opportunity to appeal and may therefore be an infringement of free expression.
The report concludes that technology develops so fast that regulatory guidelines and regulatory organisations struggle to keep up, and that the commission should establish a technical advisory panel to inform regulators.
Any recommendations that the European Commission adopt would not be implemented until at least 2005.
PCMLP was established in 1996, and has been working on the self-regulation project for three years under the European Commission's Safer Internet Action Plan.
The project has also produced a library of self-regulatory resources, a series of cross-national comparison studies, and research into regulation by internet service providers (ISPs) which included an analysis of accreditation devices and guidelines on print newspaper self-regulation.
More news from dotJournalism:
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Content regulation a matter for the individual
Internet Service Providers' Association: http://www.ispa.org.uk
Internet Content Registry: http://www.internet.org.uk
Internet Watch Foundation: http://www.iwf.org.uk
Internet Hotline Providers: http://www.inhope.org
Internet Content Rating Association: http://www.icra.org
European Internet Service Providers Association: http://www.euroispa.org
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