Communications Act 2003

The Communications Act 2003 provides the UK's framework for electronic communications (fixed and mobile), and devolves powers upon communications regulator Ofcom.

Prosecutors have used Section 127 of the Act recently to deal with the sending of offensive and threatening messages over via social media websites.

However, this section only applies to prosecutions for messages sent over 'public communications networks'. Defining Twitter and its ilk as 'public telecommunications networks' (PCNs) raises serious problems in terms of the bad fit with the EC Telecoms Framework and the complex web of laws and definitions associated with it and implemented into UK law.

Communications Act - main provisions

The Communications Act 2003 implements the European Union's telecoms framework

The Act confers functions on the Office of Communications (Ofcom) and makes provision about

  • the regulation of the provision of electronic communications networks and services and of the use of the electro-magnetic spectrum;
  • the regulation of broadcasting and of the provision of television and radio services;
  • mergers involving newspaper and other media enterprises and, in that connection, and

Fixed and mobile infrastructure

Broadband, communications actThe Act provides the legal framework for fixed and mobile communications infrastructure. It

  • allows non-European Economic Area (EEA) persons to own Broadcasting Act licences;
  • removes some but not all of the licence ownership restrictions affecting religious bodies;
  • lifts the ban on local authorities holding licences to broadcast information about their services;
  • repeals the rules which prevented the joint ownership of channel three. Removes all ownership rules for Channel five, which can now attract investment from any company;
  • removes most of the ownership rules for the ITV news provider, while maintaining the quality obligations;
  • prevents anyone owning more than one local digital multiplex in any area (most areas will only have one or two);
  • allows the introduction of an appointed news provider system for channel five, if their share of the audience is broadly equivalent to that of channel three. Local radio ownership rules should ensure that wherever there is a well-developed choice of radio services, - now 2 separate owners of local radio services, in addition to the BBC.

European Communications Framework

The EU legal framework for regulating telecoms services has been developed with the aim of developing a better-functioning internal market for telecommunications networks and services. These rules have been updated in 2009 to take account of developments in this fast-moving field.

The framework aims to promote free and fair competition and to create a strong communications industry in Europe, which is boosting Europe’s economy by supporting every area of activity which relies on electronic communications. Consumers are the ultimate beneficiaries.

The rules which govern the electronic communications sector in the EU, in force since 2002, were revised in November 2009 and were to be transposed into national legislation in the 27 Member States by 25 May 2011. In this fast-developing sector, the regulatory framework needed to be revised to ensure it continues to serve the best interests of consumers and industry in today’s marketplace. The Commission is in charge of monitoring the timely and correct implementation of the revised rules by Member States.

The EU regulatory framework covers all forms of fixed and wireless telecoms, data transmission and broadcasting. The regulation of the content carried by such services is however, dealt with under separate rules.

Section 127 - offensive and threatening messages

The Communications Act 2003 Section 127(1) covers offensive and threatening messages sent over a "public" electronic communications network. Since 2010 it has increasingly been used to arrest and prosecute individuals for messages posted to sites such as Twitter and FacebookSection 127(2) covers causing annoyance by sending messages known to be false, which is one of the laws that hoax-999 callers can be prosecuted under.

Original Directives

The framework is made of a package of five Directives and a Regulation

The amending EU directives


Communications Act 2003