For a couple of weeks in July, and at several other times of the year, people in Britain will be breaking the law if they use Twitter without a TV licence.
Our TV licence rules are quite strict – you can’t watch any live TV without a licence. The law applies to broadcasts from anywhere in the world – for example, if you’re in the UK and you don’t have a TV licence then you can’t watch CNN on their web site. It’s a criminal offence. You also can’t watch anything at all on the BBC iPlayer, even catch-up shows.
I don’t have a TV licence. We don’t watch live TV in our household, and it wasn’t worth £147 per year for the few BBC shows that we used to watch on iPlayer.
But I do use the internet, where more and more video content is streamed live. This got me thinking: Where is the line drawn? Am I breaking the law if I watch one of Apple’s live product launches? What about someone streaming a video game on Twitch?
I put those scenarios to the TV Licensing authority, and thankfully the law does take a sensible approach to modern technology. A spokesperson explained:
You do not need to be covered by a TV licence to watch live streamed content which is not provided as part of a television programme service. Examples of this may include a company live streaming their own product launch or gaming event online.
But arguably, the law hasn’t quite kept up with some aspects of the internet. For example, as I write this, I’ve got my Twitter feed open in a browser window, and at one side of the page is a live stream of a Wimbledon match.
Does the unrequested presence of that Wimbledon stream mean that I’m committing an offence?
Surprisingly, yes. According to TV Licensing:
You need to be covered by a TV licence to watch or record live TV programmes on any channel or online TV service. This is the case no matter where in the world the service is located, or the platform you’re using (for example, Facebook or Twitter).
I asked if I’m meant to stay off Twitter during sports events such as Wimbledon, or find a way to block the streams from appearing. TV Licensing wouldn’t discuss specifics. The spokesperson would only say:
It’s a bit of a grey area, but if there’s a live TV stream as part of the web page then you need a TV licence if you want to visit that web page.
I’ll admit that I felt this was overly strict, as nobody on Twitter has any control over what appears in the sidebar. It seems unreasonable to me that a US company (ESPN) can sell their own content to another US company (Twitter), but if Twitter chooses to show me that unsolicited content then I’m committing a criminal offence.
Out of interest, I put another scenario to the TV Licensing authority. Suppose there’s a terrorist attack, or a major incident such as the Grenfell Tower fire, and someone fears a relative is caught up in it. Would TV Licensing prosecute them for watching live TV news without a licence?
The answer was a bit yes and a bit no:
If a user streams live TV programmes, they need to be covered by a TV licence. You need a licence to watch live TV on any platform, and you also need a licence to watch live news. When we visit unlicensed properties, a statement is taken from any responsible adult at the property. We only prosecute when it is in the public interest to do so. It’s a tiny number of people who could ever possibly be ‘caught out’ by the scenarios you’ve outlined.
Presumably what we’re meant to take from this is that it wouldn’t be in the public interest to prosecute a concerned relative who watched TV coverage of a major incident. But who decides if their concerns are legitimate? And is it really in the public interest to prosecute someone for using Twitter during Wimbledon fortnight? Who decides?