Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Digital Britain

I should start my take on the "Digital Britain report" by making one thing clear: the fact that the government has issued the report is itself a Good Thing. The government does have a role to play in fostering and facilitating the growth of the digital world.

In that respect, the most important message in the whole document is this:
"We are at a tipping point in relation to the online world. It is moving from conferring advantage on those who are in it to conferring active disadvantage on those who are without, whether in children’s homework access to keep up with their peers, to offers and discounts, lower utility bills, access to information and access to public services. Despite that increasing disadvantage there are several obstacles facing those that are off-line: availability, affordability, capability and relevance."
However, the terrible news is that the detail of the report is merely a cascade of top-down recommendations to institutional problems, rather than a genuine attempt to clear the obstacles to every one of us seizing control of our dealings with government, banks, utilities, broadcasters and others.

Take the word "relevance" in the above quote, and consider the following passage that Technollama has extracted:
“The popularity of X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent shows the enduring drawing power of content-creating talent that few people possess. The digital world allows more of that talent to find its way to more consumers and admirers than ever before. But it is not wholly democratic: some have the talent to create content; many others do not. As throughout history, there need to be workable mechanisms to ensure that content-creators are rewarded for their talent and endeavour. And the need for investor confidence is key. User generated videos can be hugely popular, but there remains a healthy appetite for big movies costing many millions to produce.”
It's a sad reflection on the government's understanding of digital Britain, that "X-Factor" and "Britain's Got Talent" are not only seen as "relevant", but also epitomise Britain's "content-creating talent". It is deeply insidious for the government to claim that the digital world is "not wholly democratic". This is view of the online world is simply false. The digital world is much, much more important, relevant and creative than is suggested, and hugely democratic - much more so than this government would like. Television and user-generated video platforms are merely a part of a co-operative mix of many different types of web site that are increasingly inter-linked and intertwined, enabling access to a huge range of content in different formats from different people at different times on different platforms and networks, depending on where people are and what they're doing. "X-Factor" is just one pixel on a much larger screen.

So let's not allow a few television shows to be the Trojan horse for a bunch of protectionist measures for Britain's beleaguered entertainment institutions.

Just because television has "gone digital", does not mean that TV content is a proxy or yardstick for all digital content. Similarly, the fact that a few record companies have made uncorroborated guesses that they'll make £1bn less in CD sales over the next 5 years, must not colour our view of file-sharing or distract us from understanding the value of Net Neutrality. Their digital music sales increased by 28% in 2007, after all. And they aren't the only people relying on the digital media to release music. Furthermore, several studies on the impact of file-sharing appear to negate the assertion that file-sharing adversely affects creativity.

It is great that the government has demonstrated a willingness to foster the growth of digital Britain. But it is also extremely disappointing that the "vision" is for us all to be glued to a screen watching wannabes singing other people's songs.

FYI, I've extracted the government's proposed "Actions" below, and may comment in more detail on some of them later:
  • The Government will look to Ofcom to formalise the Consortium of Stakeholders to drive a new National Plan for Digital Participation.

  • The Government will ask the Consumer Expert Group to consult and report on the specific issues confronting people with disabilities’ use of the Internet in Digital Britain.

  • The Government will write to the Channel 4 Board asking it how it can further contribute to driving Digital Participation.

  • In order to ensure the delivery of the Universal Service Commitment, we will establish a delivery body – the Network Design and Procurement Group – at arm’s length from central Government.

  • The Caio Report recommended relaxation of regulations on the installation of overhead lines to lower deployment costs.The Government proposes to launch a consultation, by Summer 2009, on the impact of any amendment to the Code governing this.

  • The Government intends to consult on the proposal for a general supplement on all fixed copper lines for a Next Generation Fund.

  • The Government will have an independently produced guiding technical arbitration on the timing and cost of 900 refarming (and other related issues), paid for by an industry fund.

  • The Government will work with manufacturers so that vehicles sold with a radio are digitally enabled by the end of 2013.

  • On Digital Radio, the Government has asked Ofcom to consult on a new map of mini-regions.

  • Alongside the Digital Britain Final Report the Government is publishing a community radio consultation seeking views on changes to the current licensing regime.

  • Alongside the Digital Britain Final Report, the Government is consulting on a proposal to legislate to give Ofcom a duty to take steps to reduce copyright infringement.

  • The Intellectual Property Office is considering the scope to amend the copyright exceptions regime in areas such as distance learning and the preservation of archive material and intends to announce a consultation on these later this year.

  • The Government launched its copyright strategy

  • The Government intends to consult on legislative reform in respect of orphan works.

  • The Technology Strategy Board will lead and coordinate the necessary investment for Next Generation Digital Test Beds and has allocated an initial budget for £10m for this purpose.

  • The Government will consult openly on the option of a Contained Contestable Element of the Television Licence Fee, carrying forward the current ring-fenced element for the Digital Switchover Help Scheme and Marketing (c.3.5% of the Licence Fee) after 2013.

  • We will take the views of the Channel 4 Board on the draft updated statutory remit for C4 Corporation as set out in this Report.

  • The OFT will amend its guidance to ensure that in cases relating to local and regional newspaper mergers raising prima facie competition issues the OFT will ask Ofcom to provide them with a Local Media Assessment.

  • The Government is inviting the Audit Commission to undertake an inquiry into the practice of local authorities taking paid advertising to support information sheets.

  • Commercial public service broadcasting liberalisation, including regional news, analogue licences and advertising minutage

  • The Technology Strategy Board has assigned an initial budget of £30 million to advance Digital Britain related innovation.

  • The Government will carry out a major test in late 2009 of our ability to manage and recover from a major loss of network capacity.

  • The Information Commissioner’s Office plans to consult later this year on a new code of practice in relation to “Personal Information Online”.

  • The Government will consult on the penalties that Ofcom is able to impose for contraventions of the Communications Act 2003 and, in particular, the level of the fine it can impose in relation to persistent misuse cases.

  • Led by the Contact Council, chaired by the Cabinet Office, Government will take forward proposals for developing a Digital Switchover of Public Services Programme starting in 2012.

  • We propose that DCMS, BIS and Ofcom carry out an assessment, to be completed by the end of this year, of the opportunity for bringing together some or all of the delivery agencies either into one body or through a federated structure to achieve economies of scale and greater operational efficiency.
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