The Government is set to force BSkyB, ONdigital and the cable TV companies to hand over their digital subscriber lists, if it decides to introduce a £20 digital surcharge on the licence fee.
Technical experts claim that without these lists the TV Licensing Authority, which collects TV licence fees on behalf of the BBC, will be unable to enforce the tax as detector vans cannot currently differentiate between digital and non-digital households.
With digital TV operators adamant that a digital levy is anti-competitive, insiders suggest they may exert their rights under the Data Protection Act and refuse to supply subscriber details, leaving the Government unable to implement the tax.
According to one top media lawyer, digital TV companies are likely to refuse to co-operate with what they see as the Government’s “digital poll tax”.
“It goes against their commercial interests to provide a digital competitor [the BBC] with something as sensitive as their digital database,” the lawyer said.
Faced with this situation, the Government could be forced to change the law if Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, chooses to back the digital levy next month. The controversial new charge was proposed by economist Gavyn Davies in his report on the options for funding the BBC in the digital age.
The idea has caused a storm of protest from digital TV groups, which believe the extra cost will hold back the new technology.
The TVLA said this week that it expected the Wireless Telegraphy Act, which already forces retailers to hand over the names of consumers buying TVs, to be changed to accommodate the proposed new licence structure.
Another media lawyer warned that such a change could take months to make its way through Parliament, given Conservative opposition to a digital levy.
Digital TV companies poured scorn over the proposed tax.
“It’s astonishing so much money has been spent in compiling [the Davies recommendations], but the most basic issue – how they’re going to collect the digital money – has been overlooked,” said a spokesman for Telewest.
“This is just one of several issues that no-one has worked out. The ball’s in the Government’s court if they want to tell us how they’re going to collect the new money,” said a spokesman for BSkyB.