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.