Digital Britain: Engaging with the Internet

I got home at 1500, checked out the Digital Britain website, then fired up the Parliament channel at 1530 to see new Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw present the Digital Britain White Paper (according to BERR) or Final Report (according to DCMS). And then I tweeted while I read, before sitting down to write this, which I filed with the BBC at around 1730 (it should be up soon). So it’s a bit rough and there may be things I’ve missed… the joys of journalism, I suppose.

We live in a largely digitised country, so in one sense the Digital Britain report is an exercise in ensuring that the legal and regulatory system catches up with the lived reality for most of the UK population rather than a visionary document describing a far-distant future.

As such it is a serious attempt to ensure that government makes the best possible use of the network in serving us all, and that businesses offering access to the internet or providing services and content over the network are regulated, rewarded and cajoled as necessary to ensure that the UK does not fall even further behind the rest of the industrialised world.

Although I criticised the interim report when it was published in January because it had been written behind closed doors and offered few opportunities for consultation and engagement for those outside the charmed circle of invited experts, it is clear that Stephen Carter and his team have listened to and taken notice of the extensive debate around their initial proposals. The result, though far from perfect, offers a good basis for work on the detail of implementation and legislation, and there are clear signs that those who want to engage will be able to do so.

There are suggestions for how to liberalise and improve access to wireless infrastructure, with potentially transformative proposals to shake up spectrum allocation to build a next generation mobile network offering 50mbps in cities and 5mbps in rural areas.

There is a confirmed commitment to delivering a universal 2mbps fixed-line broadband service to the whole country by 2012, and a £6 a year levy on existing copper telephone lines to pay for the ‘final third’ next generation coverage if the market cannot deliver. Two megabits per second is too slow for me, but universal service offers so many opportunities for engagement that it’s definitely worth having.

And there may even be ‘cultural tax relief’ for games developers and distributors, on the lines of the model that has made Canada such an attractive place for UK developers to move to.

The report comes on a day when the importance of the internet and the services it supports has been drawn to the attention of the whole world. The protests over the election results in Iran have depended on Facebook, YouTube and of course Twitter to get their message to the world, put pressure on their own government and organise their activities.

Just last week the French Constitutional Council halted the government’s plans to give a new authority the ability to cut the network access of internet users accused of copyright violations because “the Internet is a component of the freedom of expression”, while Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote in the The Times today that “a fast internet connection is now seen by most of the public as an essential service, as indispensable as electricity, gas and water.”

The view of the network as a utility and as a tool for expression is a very different one from that put forward by the dominant players in the so-called ‘content industry’. Record companies, film studios, newspapers and the TV broadcasters have all lobbied hard for the UK government to shape its internet policy around their interests. They want copyright laws to be strengthened so they can lock up any and all content. They want anyone who dares to challenge their business to be kicked offline, fined and locked up. They want a world in which they control what can happen.

Fortunately that pressure seems largely to have been resisted, and the real thrust of the proposals is about getting everyone online and ensuring that the network is there to be used in ways that support creative expression, new forms of industry and new models of engagement. The Digital Britain of the report is one in which all have access, not one where we try to preserve old industrial models.

When it comes to newspapers the report notes that ‘Digital Britain is at the beginning of a new and possibly disruptive wave of local news, generated by communities for communities using free online media’, and recognises that ‘Government and business will need collaboratively to devise new ways of funding the news’ without simply promising subsidy to the existing players who have failed to adapt to the network reality and have sought protection and subsidy.

The debate about the future of public service broadcasting includes many progressive ideas, and both the decision to make Channel 4 more than just a broadcaster but turn it into ‘the open new media authority providing the seed-corn for creative innovation in the multi-media world’, and the message to the BBC that the license fee does not belong to it are all good ones.

Unfortunately the proposals to limit file-sharing are less well considered and seem to be hopelessly optimistic, or perhaps to betray a naivety about how the internet works. Ofcom is to be asked to oversee efforts by UK ISPs to reduce what they term ‘illegal file-sharing’ by 70%, initially through notifying those accused of downloading material or revealing their names and addresses to rights holders so that they can be prosecuted.

If this doesn’t work then Ofcom may then be granted power to oblige ISPs to limit bandwidth or block specific protocols, presumably in the hope that doing this will deter or stop downloads. But this proposal ignores the fact that work is already going on to develop new file sharing technologies that are encrypted or disguise addresses more effectively. Ofcom might well hit its 70% target just because everyone moves away from BitTorrent without actually reducing the number of files shared over the net.

However the fact that the BPI boss Geoff Taylor found it necessary to accuse the government of ‘digital dithering’ for refusing to allow rights holders to have internet users cut off – the same proposals that have just been thrown out in France – is a good sign indeeed.

In the end public service broadcasting and the protection of the content industries matter far less than the promotion of universal access and the creation of tools and services that encourage everyone online to demonstrate their own creative potential.

A digital britain is not one in which we are all sitting glued to our screens watching the same sort of television programming that we could have had on a cathode-ray set in the 1970’s, downloading blockbuster movies or listening to more dull music made by rich popstars whose only real interest is their property portfolio.

It is one in which universal access allows us all to be fully-fledged citizens of a networked world that offers opportunities for creative expression and communication instead of the passive consumption of packaged content. There’s a glimpse of that world through the Digital Britain report, and it is one that those of us who already live a networked life need to clarify, share and work to build.

Bill’s Links

Digital Britain Report

Gordon Brown in The Times:

BPI unimpressed:

French law:

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10 Responses to Digital Britain: Engaging with the Internet

  1. Ivan Pope says:

    “It is one in which universal access allows us all to be fully-fledged citizens of a networked world that offers opportunities for creative expression and communication instead of the passive consumption of packaged content. There’s a glimpse of that world through the Digital Britain report, and it is one that those of us who already live a networked life need to clarify, share and work to build.”
    Hear, hear!

  2. Charlie says:

    Pretty awesome read, Bill. I agree certainly on the file-sharing aspects, something I am consistently worried about, not because I constantly share files (I don’t at all), but because I use the internet as a tool to find music that is nigh impossible to find in a shop, be it online or bricks and mortar. I think that is something people like Geoff Taylor often miss, that while there are of course lots of people wanting something for nothing, a lot of folks are just trying to find something for their ipod that they can’t buy, like old LPs that haven’t had a CD release. Fergal Sharkey’s assumption that Spotify is a catch-all program to help stop this ignores the power of the portable MP3 player, as well as the fact that Spotify is missing a great deal of music. I’d happily pay for many things that I find online, if only they were commercially available.

  3. Fred F. says:

    Bill

    Just to say thanks for doing such a great job of sorting the wheat out for us.

    I couldn’t bear to tune in today to see and hear all the navel gazing by the ‘meedja’ [is it possible to hear navel gazing?].

    Must say however that the introduction of a new tax [£6.00 p.a.]will only give ammunition to the Government’s opponents, and in real terms is such a small amount overall that it would have been more sensible to have taken the money from ‘central’ funds.

    Best wishes

    Fred F.

    Digital Planet Fan..

  4. Lilian Edwards says:

    Slightly surprised at your optimism, esp in light of the filesharing proposals, and the contempt for UGC in favour of “pro” industry content, I have to say. Se my blog and Technollama’s eg for the general response around my way. you haven’t been nobbled by the same people who seem to have demanded an entirely industry-positive response from the Beeb have you ? 🙂

    [Bill says: not nobbled by anyone, honest. But given the constraints within which Carter was working I do think there is stuff there we can build on and it gives less to the content industry than I feared. And I am always optimistic, you know that!]

  5. Gordon Brown’s pledge to turn Britain into the ‘digital capital of the world’ is a really important commitment for the 9 million deaf and hard of hearing people in the UK. Online applications such as TalkByText and video relay services can mean the difference between being able to participate fully in society, or live in isolation, and for that reason we’d like to see universal inclusive access to fast broadband.

    Until everyone has access to fast, affordable broadband, many people in the UK are missing out, not only on services designed specifically for deaf and hard of hearing people, but also on services we all take for granted such as being able to book a holiday, shop online or to take RNID’s online hearing check at http://www.rnid.org.uk.

  6. ferg says:

    Well written. Your penultimate paragraph describes a scenario where we ALL lose so much. Perhaps the Iranian Twitters are doing us all a favour with a provident example of how much more the Internet could do for us.

  7. Mike says:

    Great and thoughtful summary. He is getting stuff into play.

    I have three pages of improvements for section 3, but now is not the time.

  8. Mike says:

    Bill,

    I checked Ofcom accounts for 07/08. They collected £232.4m in spectrum fees for the Treasury. These are annual fees from BBC to Mobile companies to a bit of the electromagnetic spectrum.

    I have asked the question of the DB whether all this is going to either UNiversal access or Next Gen Fund. No answer yet.

    The numbers would suggest no. If so, no wonder Carter is leaving. The fees collected from this exercise alone are greater than the 50p a month and one off raid on the Digital Switchover budget.

    I hate this, so much more can be done.

  9. daanny bloom says:

    Bill

    you must read this new column by Alex Beam in Boston Globe.

    ”I screen, you screen, we all screen”’

    Boston Globe – Boston,MA,USA

    When writing about digital reading – blogger is pushing the
    neologism “screening,” for reading on the screen – Mangen, Nielsen, …

    http://www.boston.com/ae/media/articles/2009/06/19/paper_vs_computer_screen

  10. Rachel says:

    I’m eager to see how arts organisations will position themselves in the distinction between the ‘content industries’ and ‘public service content providers’. One is about audience as markets and one is about audience as communities. Is it time to recast arts orgs as social enterprises?
    Bill, looking forward to the Digital Britain panel debate on 17 July at London AmbITion..

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