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Communications Act 2003

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Communications Act 2003
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn Act to confer functions on the Office of Communications; to make provision about the regulation of the provision of electronic communications networks and services and of the use of the electro-magnetic spectrum; to make provision about the regulation of broadcasting and of the provision of television and radio services; to make provision about mergers involving newspaper and other media enterprises and, in that connection, to amend the Enterprise Act 2002; and for connected purposes.
Citation2003 c 21
Introduced byTessa Jowell
Royal assent17th July 2003
Commencement17th July 2003 (partial)
Status: Amended
Text of the Communications Act 2003 as in force today (including any amendments) within the United Kingdom, from

The Communications Act 2003 is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom.[1] The act, which came into force on 25 July 2003, superseded the Telecommunications Act 1984. The new act was the responsibility of Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell. It consolidated the telecommunication and broadcasting regulators in the UK, introducing the Office of Communications (Ofcom) as the new industry regulator. On 28 December 2003 Ofcom gained its full regulatory powers, inheriting the duties of the Office of Telecommunications (Oftel). Among other measures, the act introduced legal recognition of community radio and paved the way for full-time community radio services in the UK, as well as controversially lifting many restrictions on cross-media ownership. It also made it illegal to use other people's Wi-Fi broadband connections without their permission. In addition, the legislation also allowed for the first time non-European entities to wholly own a British television company.[2][3]

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  • ✪ Media Regulation: Crash Course Government and Politics #45
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  • ✪ Why Is Media Consolidation Bad? Media Ownership Concentration in Markets (2003)
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Hello. I'm Craig, and this is Crash Course Government and Politics. Today I'm gonna talk a little bit about the media. Specifically, the way the media interacts with the government itself, and more specifically, the way the government regulates the media. Some of you might be saying, "Craig, get real, the government doesn't regulate the media. We live in a free-market capitalist society and the only real regulation on what gets published or broadcast is determined by consumers, Craig." Right Clone: Right on. Craig: Except that there are things you can't say on television or print in a newspaper either because they're harmful or untrue, and there are a number of government agencies that exist to place limits on the media and to make sure that we have access to information. Left Clone: Right on! Craig: Don't you mean left on? [laughs] But wait, so you guys both agree then? Clones: No. Craig: Oh, I guess I misunderstood. [Theme Music] Let's start our discussion of government regulation of the media with a little review. The oldest form of media in the US is print, so you might think that it has been the most regulated, but you'll remember from our episode on the freedom of the press that this isn't really the case because of the pesky first amendment. The freedom of the press was written into the Bill of Rights because the framers wisely recognized that without a free press, Americans would be less able to have the information they needed to make good political decisions, which they do all the time. They also make bad political decisions, too. They just make a lot of decisions. So there are very few government regulations on what can and can't appear in the newspaper. Near v. Minnesota basically said that there could be no censorship in the form of prior restraint. In New York Times v. US, the Pentagon Papers case made it difficult for the government to use national security as an excuse to prevent publication of sensitive, or in that case, embarrassing material. There are still libel laws that allow individuals to sue newspapers and magazines when they print something that they don't like. But as far as public figures are concerned, the Supreme Court's decision in New York Times v. Sullivan makes it pretty hard to censor the press by suing for libel. So I can say anything I want about public figures. Public figures are dumb. In order to win this type of lawsuit, the plaintiff must show that the article, or advertisement, was both untrue and published with actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth, which is a very, very high bar. What this means in practice is that the first amendment pretty much protects print media from government regulation. Although as we saw in the last episode, the number of Americans getting their information from print is shrinking. So maybe the markets are doing the regulation after all. Although I don't think people are buying fewer newspapers as a way of regulating their content. They probably just don't want the papers cluttering up their house and they don't wanna get that ink on their hands, you know, the black ink the rubs off. The government is taking a larger role in TV and radio, possibly because it reaches the largest numbers. Broadcast media is the most tightly regulated among the information sources. The first and probably least transparent way that the government regulates broadcast media is through control of the airwaves, which is done through licensing. Broadcast spectrum is a limited resource and is technically owned by the public, so if you want to broadcast, you need to purchase a license from the federal government. This gives you the right to operate your television or radio station under certain well-defined conditions. These licenses must be renewed every five years and they almost always are. The licenses are granted and most of the government regulation of broadcasters is managed by the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC. It was founded in 1934 to oversee a chaotic radio industry and it soon expanded to include television. As part of its mission, the FCC required that in order for a station to be granted a license, it had to show that it was operating in the public interest. In terms of politics, this meant that the FCC has come up with some rules regarding what gets broadcast. Every channel has to have a CSI. The first rule, dating back to 1949, is called the Fairness Doctrine. This requires broadcasters to give equal time to each side of a public issue. So if a station airs a program criticizing a war, say the one in Vietnam or the one in Iraq, it has to air another program of equal length that supports the war. What this meant in practice was that stations shied away from controversial programming, even though the Fairness Doctrine was never rigidly enforced. The lack of enforcement and generally non-controversial nature of commercial broadcasting didn't stop Ronald Reagan's administration from pushing for the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1983. Congress voted to reinstate it in 1987 when Democrats took control, but Reagan said "uh-uh," and he vetoed the legislation. As a result, the Fairness Doctrine is pretty much dead. Other rules related to the Fairness Doctrine are the Equal Time Rule, which requires that broadcasters not discriminate in selling time to political candidates, and the Right of Rebuttal, which ensures a political candidate will have the opportunity to respond to a personal attack if it gets aired. These rules do not apply to eagles, however. Yeah, you stay down. There's another important FCC rule that deals with media ownership, but I'm gonna talk about that later because the FCC didn't tell me I can't. The FCC also regulates what can be broadcast, but these rules doesn't relate to politics so much as obscenity, indecency, or profanity showing up on radio or television. Sometimes these FCC rulings and fines become Supreme Court cases as people raise concerns about whether they deny our precious, precious free speech. One of the most famous cases in this area, FCC v. Pacifica Broadcasting, dealt with comedian George Carlin's Seven Words routine, which I will not be repeating because Crash Course is a family-friendly educational channel. This case established that it's okay for the FCC to require that certain language and images not be broadcast during family times, which is before 10 PM. The FCC also hands out fines for f-bombs and wardrobe malfunctions to keep us safe and virtuous. I should point out here that these FCC rules only apply to broadcast media and not most basic cable channels, which is why there's so many naked people in Game of Thrones. I don't know if that's why there is, but that's why they can do it. Congress also tried to regulate broadcasters by passing legislation, as it tried to do with the 1996 Telecommuncations Act. This act was best known for its failed attempts to regulate the internet, but it had other more interesting effects, too. As with any congressional legislation, this act was subject to Supreme Court judicial review. The court did strike down part of the law, Title V, which was called the Communications Decency Act and was meant to regulate online pornography, because its definition of obscenity was overbroad, and the court said that it violated the first amendment. Speaking of the internet, unlike print and broadcast media, it's largely self-regulating. This is possibly because Congress has recognized that it changes so quickly that most laws and regulations will be out of date by the time they're finally written. But this hasn't stopped them from trying. After the court struck down the Communications Decency Act, Congress tried again with the Child Online Protection Act in 1998, and they failed. This one didn't make it all the way to the Supreme Court, but lower federal courts enjoined the government from enforcing it in 2007. A more effective way to regulate the internet has been through lawsuits, especially those around intellectual property. As viewers of our IP series know, this is super complicated, but basically people can use the courts to restrict the internet. A good example of this was the Napster case, where courts ruled against the file-sharing company and it was shut down. It takes individuals, and Metallica, and corporations to bring these suits, but they use the government to shape the internet to meet their interests, so it can be seen as government regulation. Speaking of corporations, this is a good place to bring up a couple of very complicated regulatory issues involving the internet, television and newspapers. The first one has to do with media ownership. Let's go to the Thought Bubble. Part of the 1996 Telecommunications Law, Title III to be more exact, dealt with the regulation of cable television. Actually, it was a deregulation of the cable industry, allowing for companies that own newspapers and radio and television stations to also own cable companies. This kind of cross-ownership was supposed to lower barriers to entry into the cable business, and it was clarified by the 2003 FCC ruling that allows a single company to own and operate the leading newspaper, television and cable companies in a single market. This has led to concerns about monopolization of the media as more and more companies merge. And it's hard to argue that this isn't happening. So the number of companies that provide media content and access has been shrinking precipitously in the past 30 years, which is probably why the FCC and Congress scrutinize media mergers so closely. Critics point out that these kinds of super-mergers can lead to a lack of diversity in media. This can lead to fewer points of view represented in our news coverage and our stories. Net neutrality has also been a big issue, you've probably head about it. The question revolves around whether the FCC should pass rules that allow internet service providers to charge differential rates to companies that use their bandwidth. For example, internet service providers sometimes sell faster or better service to large companies like Netflix at the expense of smaller competitors or individuals who don't pay as much. Thanks, Thought Bubble. The net neutrality issue is a really complex regulatory question, but the debate over it, which takes place in Congress, on television, on the internet, and even through the FCC's website, where anyone's allowed to make public comments on proposed rules, has been fascinating and it points out a number of key issues involving government regulation of the media. First, it shows that a lot of media regulation involves a number of actors. In this case, George Clooney. No, no, no, not those kinds of actors. Private media companies, media organizations themselves and executive agencies like the FCC. It also points out that the overarching regulatory structure is built by Congress but that the real key actors are the regulatory rule makers and enforcers of the executive branch. And George Clooney. He has aged so well. Even more important though, are the questions that lie behind the debate. When we think about regulation, what comes to mind is regulation of content or censorship, but with net neutrality rules as with FCC cross-ownership rules, what we're really looking at is regulation of access and how much media will be available at a given price. Those who argue that the internet should be regulated like a public utility rather than just another set of corporations that take their cues from the market are getting at something. The media is different from other corporate entities because it serves a public function, something that the framers realized when they wrote freedom of the press into the first amendment. Without a robust media, Americans may have less access to information that they need to make smarter political choices. Of course, all the access we have doesn't mean that we necessarily will make smarter choices, but in this case, being able to hear more points of view is better than only hearing a few. That's why we're skeptical of censorship and why many people wanna keep the internet as open as possible. Thanks for watching, I'll see you next time. Crash Course Government and Politics is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. Support for Crash Course US Government comes from Voqal. Voqal supports nonprofits that use technology and media to advance social equity. Learn more about their mission and initiatives at Crash Course is made with the help of all these monstrous jerks. That's not libel, they're public figures. Go ahead, try and sue me. Thanks for watching.


Provisions of the act

The act had a large number of provisions, including the following:

  • Obtaining access to the Internet with no intention to pay for the service was made a criminal offence.
  • Sending a malicious communication using social media was made a criminal offence.
  • The Independent Television Commission, Radio Authority, Office of Telecommunications, and Radiocommunications Agency were merged into Ofcom.
  • The telecommunications licensing regime was replaced by a general authorisation for companies to provide telecommunications services subject to general conditions of entitlement, while BT retained its universal service obligation.
  • It was declared an offence to "persistently make use of a public electronic communications network for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety". Ofcom subsequently developed policies to reduce the number of silent telephone calls.
  • The public service remit for Channel 4 was revised.
  • Broadcasters were required to make a proportion of television programmes outside the London area (defined as outside the M25).
  • Restrictions on ITV company ownership were lifted, aside from "public interest" test that was added as an amendment in the House of Lords. The result was the formation of a single entity ITV plc controlling all of the ITV franchises in England and Wales in February 2004.
  • The limit on the proportion of ITN that any ITV operating company could own was abolished.
  • Broadcasters were required to carry a "suitable quantity and range of programmes" dealing with religion and other beliefs, as part of their public service broadcasting.
  • Political advertising on television or radio was prohibited.
  • Ofcom given the responsibility to 'promote' media literacy.[4]
  • The Gaelic Media Service was created to decide on the future development of Gaelic Broadcasting services.
  • Community radio stations were recognised as a distinct third tier of radio alongside BBC Radio and commercial radio.
  • The authority for the BBC to collect the licence fee was set out.
  • Provision was made for the requirements for blind and deaf television viewers. This has subsequently included sign language, subtitles and audio description.
  • The Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice was established as the regulatory body ensuring that advertising on radio and television is not misleading, harmful, offensive, or beyond the boundaries of taste and decency.


It is an offence under section 125 of the act to obtain access to the Internet when there is no intention to pay for that service.[5] The legislation was intended to prevent the major defrauding of communications companies. Nevertheless, the individual practice of piggybacking (the illicit use of a Wi-Fi connection to access another subscriber's Internet service) was demonstrated to be a contravention of the act by R v Straszkiewicz in 2005.[6] There have been subsequent arrests for the practice.[7] Piggybacking may also be a breach of the Computer Misuse Act 1990. Section 125 of the act has been criticised for its vagueness, resulting in the possibility that many users of portable Wi-Fi enabled devices may be inadvertently breaching it.[8]

Malicious communications

Section 127 of the act makes it an offence to send a message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character over a public electronic communications network.[9] The section replaced section 43 of the Telecommunications Act 1984 and is drafted as widely as its predecessor.[10] The section has been used controversially to prosecute users of social media in cases such as the Twitter Joke Trial and Facebook comments concerning the murder of April Jones.[11]

On 19 December 2012, to strike a balance between freedom of speech and criminality, the Director of Public Prosecutions issued interim guidelines, clarifying when social messaging is eligible for criminal prosecution under UK law. Only communications that are credible threats of violence, harassment, or stalking (such as aggressive Internet trolling) which specifically targets an individual or individuals, or breaches a court order designed to protect someone (such as those protecting the identity of a victim of a sexual offence) will be prosecuted. Communications that express an "unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, or banter or humour, even if distasteful to some and painful to those subjected to it" will not. Communications that are merely "grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false" will be prosecuted only when it can be shown to be necessary and proportionate. People who pass on malicious messages, such as by retweeting, can also be prosecuted when the original message is subject to prosecution. Individuals who post messages as part of a separate crime, such as a plan to import drugs, would face prosecution for that offence, as is currently the case.[12][13][14]

Revisions to the interim guidelines were issued on 20 June 2013 following a public consultation.[15] The revisions specified that prosecutors should consider:

  • whether messages were aggravated by references to race, religion or other minorities, and whether they breached existing rules to counter harassment or stalking; and
  • the age and maturity of any wrongdoer should be taken into account and given great weight.

The revisions also clarified that criminal prosecutions were "unlikely":

  • when the author of the message had "expressed genuine remorse";
  • when "swift and effective action ... to remove the communication" was taken; or
  • when messages were not intended for a wide audience.

Amendments to the act

Notable prosecutions

  • 2012: Paul Chambers made a joke on Twitter in response to Robin Hood Airport cancelling flights. He said that unless the facility resolved the problem within a week, he would be "blowing the airport sky high". After an off-duty manager discovered the post, Chambers was arrested by anti-terror police. He was found guilty, lost his job and was ordered to pay a £385 fine and £600 in costs.[17]However, after a strong public outcry[18] and three appeals,[19] the case was eventually overturned.[20]
  • 2014: A Lincolnshire man was charged with being grossly offensive after posting a photograph of a policeman on social media, with two phalluses drawn on it. The offending picture was passed on to Lincolnshire Police, who arrested the 20-year-old. He was ordered to pay £400 in compensation to the officer in question, in addition to £85 costs and a £60 victim surcharge.[21]
  • 2017: R v Mwaikambo where a 43-year-old man posted one video and seven pictures of a victim of the Grenfell Towers tragedy to his Facebook account. Notable in this case was the rapidity of conviction: the fire occurred on 14 June and the case was heard but two days later. Mwaikambo was imprisoned by Ikram J for a total of three months.[22][23]
  • 2018: Mark Meechan, a YouTube comedian and social commentator, was convicted under the Communications Act. He had made a video demonstrating how he had trained his girlfriend's dog to perform a Nazi salute upon hearing the phrases "Sieg Heil" and "Gas the Jews".[24][25][26] Even though Meechan insisted that he was not actually racist and that it was a joke, the court found him guilty of being "grossly offensive" on 20 March.[27] He was sentenced on 23 April 2018 at Airdrie Sheriff Court after being found guilty of committing a hate crime and was fined £800.[28]
  • 2018: A Merseyside woman was convicted under the Communications Act for posting rap lyrics on Instagram which were deemed 'racist', due to them including racially-charged language. Chelsea Russell had used lyrics from a Snap Dogg song as a tribute to a boy who died in a road accident. She was sentenced to an eight week community order, along with an eight-week curfew. She was also ordered to pay costs of £500 and an £85 victim surcharge.[29][30]

See also



  1. ^ "Communications Act 2003". Retrieved 23 April 2014.
  2. ^ UK Office of Communications [4.4.1] | ICT Regulation Toolkit Archived 23 June 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Department for Culture Media and Sport - media ownership Archived 17 August 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Wallis, Richard; Buckingham, David (2013-06-10). "Arming the citizen-consumer: The invention of 'media literacy' within UK communications policy". European Journal of Communication. 28 (5): 527–540. doi:10.1177/0267323113483605. ISSN 0267-3231.
  5. ^ "Communications Offences". The Crown Prosecution Service. Retrieved 23 April 2014.
  6. ^ Jane Wakefield (28 July 2005). "Wireless hijacking under scrutiny". BBC News. Retrieved 23 April 2014.
  7. ^ "Man arrested over wi-fi 'theft'". BBC News. 22 August 2007. Retrieved 22 August 2007.
  8. ^ Stewart Mitchell (17 August 2009). "Vague Wi-Fi laws lead to legal risk for mobile surfers". PC Pro. Retrieved 23 April 2014.
  9. ^ Neil Addison. "Harassment Law UK - Malicious Communications Offences". Harassment Law. Archived from the original on 9 October 2014. Retrieved 23 April 2014.
  10. ^ Professor Lilian Edwards (19 October 2012). "Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003: Threat or Menace?". The London School of Economics and Political Science. Retrieved 23 April 2014.
  11. ^ Amanda Bancroft (27 April 2012). "Is the law criminalising 'improper' Twitter use a menace?". The Guardian. Retrieved 23 April 2014.
  12. ^ "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012: United Kingdom". Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 4 October 2013.
  13. ^ Dominic Casciani (19 December 2012). "Prosecutors clarify offensive online posts law". BBC News. Retrieved 4 October 2013.
  14. ^ "U.K. sets out social media prosecution guidelines". CBS News (Associated Press). 19 December 2012. Retrieved 4 October 2013.
  15. ^ David Barrett (20 June 2013). "Offensive online posts to escape prosecution if writers apologise, say new guidelines". The Telegraph (UK). Retrieved 4 October 2013.
  16. ^ Ed Vaizey (4 November 2014). "The Audiovisual Media Services Regulations 2014". Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Retrieved 24 November 2014.
  17. ^ "Wrong kind of tweet leaves air traveller £1,000 out of pocket", 11 May 2010
  18. ^ "#IAmSpartacus campaign explodes on Twitter in support of airport joker", 13 November 2010
  19. ^ "The "Twitter Joke Trial" returns to the High Court", 22 June 2012
  20. ^ "Robin Hood Airport tweet bomb joke man wins case", 27 July 2012
  21. ^ "Builder ordered to pay policeman £400 after drawing two penises on a picture of him and posting it on Facebook", 6 February 2014
  22. ^ "Man jailed for sharing photo of dead Grenfell Tower fire victim on Facebook", 16 Jun 2017
  23. ^ "Man jailed for malicious communication offences", 16 Jun 2017
  24. ^ "Count Dankula found guilty of hate crime after teaching pet pug 'Nazi salute'". Evening Standard. 2018-03-20. Retrieved 2018-03-20.
  25. ^ The conviction of Count Dankula sets a dangerous precedent for freedom of speech The Independent, Shappi Khorsandi ,Friday 23 March 2018
  26. ^ Man arrested over 'Nazi salute dog' video Man arrested over 'Nazi salute dog' video 9 May 2016
  27. ^ "YouTuber found guilty of hate crime for teaching pet pug 'Nazi salute'". Evening Standard. Retrieved 2018-03-21.
  28. ^ BBC News Man fined for hate crime after filming pug's 'Nazi salutes'
  29. ^ "Woman guilty of 'racist' Snap Dogg rap lyric Instagram post". BBC News. Retrieved 2018-04-20.
  30. ^ "Woman who posted rap lyrics as tribute on Instagram guilty of sending offensive message". Liverpool Echo. Retrieved 2018-04-20.


External links

This page was last edited on 3 March 2019, at 03:47
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