Digital Britain or Digital Blunder?

The Digital Britain parliamentary commission has presented its interim report, which has been met with the usual journalistic brouhaha and bombastic statements. The more progressive media has kept a distrusting tone, while the usual suspects at the Telegraph and the Mail have hailed it as going in the right direction because it attacks piracy. I imagine that Telegraph editors and journalists might go apoplectic at the thought of young people downloading MP3s.

What does the report say? Digital Britain sets the government’s Internet regulatory strategy for the next decade. The report tackles four main topics: network infrastructure, content, universal access, and e-government. The latter two are not very controversial. The digital divide and e-government are not the type of topics that move the wired masses into action any more. In these topics, the interim report is quite uncontroversial. The government will continue to make inroads towards universal connectivity, continue its electronic literacy campaigns, as well as making sure that more government services are offered online.

As expected, the two topics generating more controversy are networks and content. Digital Britain intends to move the UK towards a faster broadband by upgrading its backbone. This is not particularly controversial in itself, but what I find laughable, and many people in mailing lists do as well, is just how timid the report is in its objectives and methods. While many countries in the Far East and cities in the US have made some large public-private joint ventures to push for faster broadband, the report proposes the type of non-solution that inefficient government is infamous for. For example, one of the recommendations is to “remove regulatory barriers” so that private enterprises can do all on their own. Another one tells us that:

“We will establish a Government-led strategy group to assess the necessary demand side, supply-side and regulatory measures to underpin existing market-led investment plans, and to remove barriers to the timely rollout, beyond those declared plans, to maximise market-led coverage of Next Generation broadband.”

Ugh. They might as well sit around in a room and have tea.

The content part of the report is not really much better. The section that has received most coverage is that of the way in which the government is going to tackle piracy. The interim report is seriously concerned about the widespread copying of copyright works, yet it seems to ignore that all of the legal solutions proposed in the last decade have not worked. They comment that in order to solve piracy, they intend to take the following action:

“By the time the final Digital Britain report is published the Government will have explored with interested parties the potential for a Rights Agency to bring industry together to agree how to provide incentives for legal use of copyright material; work together to prevent unlawful use by consumers which infringes civil copyright law; and enable technical copyright-support solutions that work for both consumers and content creators.”

Let’s party like it’s 1999! The solution to illegal downloading is yet one more government agency, and wait for it, more technical solutions! Would these be the same technical solutions that are being ditched by pretty much everyone? Not only that, the interim report is backing a specific technology called ACAP (Automated Content Access Protocol). Needless to say, ACAP has been criticised from the start for not taking the user into account.

To put the nail in the coffin of the report’s credibility, the government seems to be pushing for a 3-strikes solution. The interim report states:

“Our response to the consultation on peer-to-peer file sharing sets out our intention to legislate, requiring ISPs to notify alleged infringers of rights (subject to reasonable levels of proof from rights- holders) that their conduct is unlawful. We also intend to require ISPs to collect anonymised information on serious repeat infringers (derived from their notification activities), to be made available to rights-holders together with personal details on receipt of a court order.”

The government seems to have realised its threat that it would enact legislation about notification to users if ISPs and content owners did not reach an agreement. It is worrying that a legislative solution to mandate the enactment of an ISP police is even being considered. However, it is noteworthy that the report has dropped the requirement of ISPs to cut out service, in favour of the more measured requirement to notify the user.

Unfortunately, the government seems to have drafted a technology report only listening to content owners and technophobes. Absent in the report is the plethora of bottom-up solutions that are moving the Internet forward, in favour of a centralised-yet-timid approach. The strategy is timid where it should be bold, and wherever it proposes firm action, it is only to benefit the copyright industry.

Too bad it is too early in the morning, I need a strong drink after reading this.

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