Digital Britain isn’t ambitious enough


1:37 pm - February 2nd 2009

by Lynne Featherstone MP    


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The government’s report into “Digital Britain” – an 81 page pdf – was launched last week.

As an interim report, it would be unreasonable to expect it to have come to conclusions across the board – but time after time, rather than offering up suggestions or ranges of options for further consideration before decision, the report basically says, “we’ve thought about it, and decide someone needs to think about it some more”.

Mix in the love of plans, strategies and new groups and it is the blend of bureaucracy and indecision that often frustrates even the keenest fans of the New Labour governing style.

And that style has the report’s foreword, from minister Stephen Carter, in a suffocating grip. As the foreword says, “the average British adult spends almost half of all their waking hours using the services of the communications sector or browsing, watching or listening to the audio-visual content it distributes”, and yet how does the foreword start? By talking about digital’s role in Britain’s economy.

The health and success of this sector is discussed in terms of the economic benefits it brings. That is certainly important – particularly at times like these – but when we are spending nearly half our waking hours consuming to some degree or other its output, then it is also a sector that is about far more than just economics. Digital life should be about more than a matter of pounds and pence, economic statistics and econometric models.

This narrow-minded focus on the economic stands in ironic contrast to how much of digital life is driven by non-economic factors – as with the large volume of content make available voluntarily and for free. Imagine a digital world where the only contributors were those with a direct economic motive for contributing. It would be only a shadow of the vibrant digital culture that we have.

Moreover, understanding how to foster and grow that culture is necessary in order to in turn reap the economic benefits. Yet on so many of these issues the report is silent. A few quick examples. A spread of creative commons licensing could unlock much creativity. Instead, we have no imagination on the copyright front in the report, not only in its own copyright status but in the lack of good plans for changing crown copyright or the copyright culture more generally.

Not even a modest step in the direction of copying the US federal government’s approach to copyright where, for example, it is standard for photographs taken by the US military and then available free for all to use. If the taxpayer is paying for the photo then (security considerations excepted) why shouldn’t the taxpayer be able to use it?

Likewise on libel. It can have a chilling effect on blogging, and there is plenty to debate changing – such as the way libel law discriminates against those who moderate comments, encouraging therefore the lowest common denominator style of blogs where anything goes in the comments.

Or the ease with which someone can threaten libel action, run up legal costs and then try to pressure you into paying them even if you are willing to say sorry and issue a correction long before matters get to court.

As with copyright, we are stuck with a set of rules, procedures and habits that so often hinder the flourishing of creativity in a digital world – but which the report does not adequately address. Similarly crucial to that flourishing are the technology start-ups, but again their needs for care and attention are largely omitted.

The report does talk about some important issues around the digital skeleton of the country – the structure of our broadcasting services, uses of spectrums and availability of broadband. But it is rather like producing a report on the wine industry that is largely about the supply of glass bottles and has very little about the product that goes in those bottles.

Although there is a chapter titled “Digital Content” all its meat is really just about online piracy and public sector broadcasting content – important, but again a rather narrow and traditional view of what matters.

Even on the digital skeleton, the report is very timid in its statements. As my colleague Don Foster put it in Parliament when the report was published:

Perhaps the biggest disappointment relates to the plans for rolling out universal high-speed broadband. The Government promised that they would bring forward capital investment to help us out of the recession. This is one of the key areas in which that could be done. If done properly, 600,000 new jobs could be created in this country, but what have we got? We have some vague commitment to a universal 2 megabits per second provision. As the hon. Gentleman said, average speeds are already 3.6 megabits per second, so why is there such little ambition and such a low target?

In the end what should be a study in supporting the exuberant range of new opportunities is one smothered in a welter of bureaucracy and timidity. A open, welcoming digital world this ain’t.

More:
Cabalamat: A broadband tax for the UK?
Jim Killock: Why Digital Britain could be bad for you

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About the author
This is a guest article. Lynne Featherstone served on the London Assembly 2000-5, before stepping down after being elected as a Liberal Democrat MP for Hornsey and Wood Green in London. She also blogs on her website here.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Foreign affairs ,Media ,Technology ,Westminster

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Reader comments


Labour are trying to catch up with the so called digital revolution with the appearance of LabourList and it seems when it comes to blogging, if you are rich and dont like what someone else has written, then you can be threatened with action even if there is nothing whatsoever libellous in the article….That is the insecurity of the web…The recession is going to make more and more people turn to the web to try and make some money…

The proposals really are depressingly second-rate. No ambition, no vision. As someone who works in the affected sector, I can say with confidence that nobody has paid the slightest bit of attention to it.

It’s a classic example of setting a target so low that the government can’t fail to miss. I don’t mind the government deciding that it has nothing useful to add to the digital industry, but I do mind the setting of silly targets, the (inevitable) achievement of which will allow the government to congratulate itself as though it had something to do with the process. If the government wants to do something worthy of praise, it has to do a lot more than this.

“libel law discriminates against those who moderate comments, encouraging therefore the lowest common denominator style of blogs where anything goes in the comments.”

When you say “anything goes” I presume you are referring to free speech?

Likewise on libel. It can have a chilling effect on blogging, and there is plenty to debate changing – such as the way libel law discriminates against those who moderate comments, encouraging therefore the lowest common denominator style of blogs where anything goes in the comments.

Just to make it clear, I think the advice is that you are more likely to lose a case if you engage in pre- rather than post-moderation.

5. Alisdair Cameron

Second rate doesn’t begin to describe how bad the report is:
Loads more costly committee/talking shops (note: setting up a further report/commission should not be an outcome for a report/commission itself).
Make grandiose headline announcements (Bband for all) then massively underwhelm (speeds slower than today’s average, and some free dongles for those in the sticks, gee thanks? where’s the bloody fibre-optic?).
Decide all Bband users are thieving criminals, in all likelihood subversive terror suspects, and so ask for draconian supervision powers, and prop up the fat cats in the music industry for their inability to change a failed business model.

“such as the way libel law discriminates against those who moderate comments, encouraging therefore the lowest common denominator style of blogs where anything goes in the comments.”

Thanks, Lynne. I am REALLY CHUFFED to be dismissively referred to as the lowest common denominator.

The law only “discriminates” against those who PRE-moderate, and I am fully in favour of that law as it stands. Post moderation, such as is practised on this site, and many others, is fine.

The free exchange of ideas is the bedrock of blogging, and of the internet in general, and pre-moderation stifles it. I often wonder why so many Liberals think pre-moderation is a good idea.

The free exchange of ideas is the bedrock of blogging, and of the internet in general, and pre-moderation stifles it. I often wonder why so many Liberals think pre-moderation is a good idea.

Not really, Its easily arguable that pre-moderation simply allows more silly drive-by commenting, and thus brings down the tone in general. Look at my earlier post about the broken windows theory relating to blog comments.

In the end, blog comments can lead to the lowest common denominator, unless they’re made into a conversation actively by the blog writers. I’m not for or against pre-moderation, by the way, I just see it as too much hassle. But I can see why Lynne would think that. Especially if you’re worried that blog commenters can leave libellous comments.

“Its easily arguable that pre-moderation simply allows more silly drive-by commenting, and thus brings down the tone in general.”

I think you mean post moderation here.

Blogs with pre-moderation very very rarely attract a community, because conversations hardly ever happen in the comments, unless it’s a two-day slanging match between two people.

Still, it’s amusing to have someone who berates me for elitism and lack of trust in democracy in one thread berating me for appealing to the lowest common denominator in this one.

If you’re referring to me, I don’t remember berating anyone. Yes, I meant post moderation.

As for turning things into a community – not necessarily true. The F Word blog has pre-moderation and yet its ethos still makes it into a vibrant community.

Lastly, its also easily arguable that most threads on post-moderated debates eventually turn into a slagging match. After a while, the tone of debate always goes down. Unless you start from a comment by newmania, in which case it can only go up.

I agree with Rob Knight when he says “The proposals really are depressingly second-rate. No ambition, no vision.” There are a number of serious problem with the proposals. I’ll mention a few:

1. a target of 2 Mb/s by 2012 is laughably poor. South Korea has a target of 1 Gb/s by that date. I’m fairly certain that the laws of physics don’t operate differently for Koreans than they do for us, so if they can do it why can’t we?

2. Carter comes out against net neutrality saying “Ofcom has in the past acknowledged the claims in the debate but have also acknowledged that ISPs might in future wish to offer guaranteed service levels to content providers in exchange for increased fees. In turn this could lead to differentiation of offers and promote investment in higher-speed access networks. Net neutrality regulation might prevent this sort of innovation.”

In other words, if I set up an internet service, for example doing streaming video or VoIP, then ISPs can blackmail me by saying “unless you cough up loads of extra money, we’ll deliberately degrade the service to your users an make your business fail”. So it would be the lack of net neutrality that could prevent innovation, the opposite of what Carter says.

3. forcing broadband customers to pay £20 a year broadband tax to a “Rights Agency” which will then think up ways to prop up the music industry’s failed business model is (i) unfair, (ii) an expensive waste of money, (iii) won’t work, and (iv) is rewarding a failing sector of the economy rather than a succeeding sector. The government should reinforce success not failure.

In short, this report is vague, but the bits that aren’t vague are ill thought out.

Jennie: here, for solidarity: http://pennyred.blogspot.com/

Lastly, its also easily arguable that most threads on post-moderated debates eventually turn into a slagging match. After a while, the tone of debate always goes down.

Only if the author of the post or the editors & admins allow it.

We’ve got a good community of commenters here, because the egregious fools know if they getcarried away they’ll get disemvowelled or deleted–a style used most succesfully on Making Light and Boing Boing, both major traffic sites with few problems that last.

Sites that allow anything to publish immediately and never deal with any problems (like, for example, Order Order) do become bloody awful. But most sites that pre-moderate only build up a community very slowly, if at all. F word is a special case, an outlier that has specific reasons for it’s style.

For some reason, Lynne’s post implies that it’s a black/white issue, you either pre-moderate or have a gutter strewn free-for-all. But the most succesful sites are, generally, in the middle (my preference is to insist on an account or OpenID to comment, but OpenID needs a little bit more of a UI improvement for most sites (and people that have one need to know what it is, most have several without knowing). Allow anyone to comment, but delete/ban idiots.

That’s pretty much what we do here, and for the most part it works. Whereas sites that don’t have a pre-existing community and don’t let free comments find it hard to build up a community.

Meh. There have been loads of stuides on this, I’ve read a fair few, but as always opinions vary–frequently due to pre-existing preference, unfortunately.

Cabalamt.

unless you cough up loads of extra money, we’ll deliberately degrade the service to your users an make your business fail

Playing advocate, as I’m not sold on this. Competition between ISPs in the UK is intense (much better than in the states from what I understand). Yes, they could form a cartel and force up charges, but they could also compete heavily and allow businesses that need to show sites but don’t need fat pipes for streaming stuf to get cheaper deals than is current thus allowing for more innovation.

there is an issue regarding bandwidth allowance, and it has to be paid for. My concern, and where I’d want to be enforces, is cross ISP traffic. If I pay to get connected to one company, others shouldn’t come to me to ask for more to get my content to i>their customers. And I want to pay my ISP to give me a good domestic connection and know that’ll give me equal access to every site according to what they pay for.

If you want to stream video, then I’ve no problem with you paying more than a site that’s simply pushing text. This may be because I look forward to getting discounts on my hosting packages….

Agree withoyu completely on points 1 & 3 though.

I do like the way they’ve launched the report and it’s only online as a massive PDF. PDF files aren’t web native content. FFS get a clue people, usability experts have been saying this for year. Not to mention the bandwidth the Govt is paying for to let us all DL the whole thing even if we only want summaries or bits of it.

We’ve got a good community of commenters here, because the egregious fools know if they getcarried away they’ll get disemvowelled or deleted–a style used most succesfully on Making Light and Boing Boing, both major traffic sites with few problems that last.

Well yes, I agree, but then if you delete people or actively discourage trolling (which might not even be hate speech) then you’re accused of being illiberal and not allowing people to speak their minds even if its ad hominems. So either way, a degree of control is required whether you do pre-moderation or you delete afterwards.

In both cases people will accuse you of being illiberal.

But in the latter place they’re wrong. Free speech is linked to free association. If it’s your site, you’re paying the bills, you get say what’s allowed there. If you have clear guidelines as to what’s acceptable, and are seen to enforce it, then people are more likely to engage effectively and less likely to troll or throw insults.

And the idiots who whinge can be told to go elsewhere instead. No one is stopping anyone setting their own site up, after all.

“As for turning things into a community – not necessarily true. The F Word blog has pre-moderation and yet its ethos still makes it into a vibrant community.”

Depends on whether you admire the tone of their firm hegemon or not. If you do then I imagine it’s heaven, but otherwise…

Depends on whether you admire the tone of their firm hegemon or not. If you do then I imagine it’s heaven, but otherwise…

Its their yard and they get to decide the hegemon. I like it and the community aspect works, which is what I was addressing.

If you have clear guidelines as to what’s acceptable, and are seen to enforce it, then people are more likely to engage effectively and less likely to troll or throw insults.

Well yes and no… the same would apply to pre-moderation, which is the issue I was addressing. Furthermore, trolling doesn’t necessarily involve insults. We used to have one guy on PP who would publish large tracts of text flogging his hobby horses, that was only tangentially applicable to the topic. Used to ruin every thread…

Its their yard and they get to decide the hegemon. I like it and the community aspect works, which is what I was addressing.

Yes, a bunch of exclusively women discussing exclusively women in their own little enclave of the internet, that’ll bring the binary crashing down in no time…

Furthermore, trolling doesn’t necessarily involve insults. We used to have one guy on PP who would publish large tracts of text flogging his hobby horses, that was only tangentially applicable to the topic. Used to ruin every thread

Well yes. Given it was palpably trolling as per the definition

An Internet troll, or simply troll in Internet slang, is someone who posts controversial, inflammatory, irrelevant or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum or chat room, with the intention of provoking other users into an emotional response[1] or to generally disrupt normal on-topic discussion.[2]

you could, and in my view should, have simply deleted such posts, or shunted them to a different “trolls be here” thread (I forget how to move comments in WP, I know it’s possible, it may’ve been a plugin).

If the idiot derailer knows that his comments will just get deleted, eventually he’ll either engage effectively on the actual issues, or get bored and go away.

I think, ultimately, we agree on this, we’re just using different language to say very similar things—we both favour the middle ground position, we’re just on slightly different bits of it picking on minor differences.

Neither of us wants a blog with a comments box like Guido’s, and I personally don’t like the restrictive style of some—it has its place, but if you want a community of commenters and regular visitors, pre-moderation will stop it from happening unless you’re really good. I personally don’t like pre-moderation, but I respect that some have their reasons for using it, especially those short of time who don’t necessarily want a large conversation going on on their site.

But if you do, and most who want to be a successful blogger should, then don’t pre-moderate. But if you want to blog as an adjunct to something else, then it’s up to you, but I personally think politicians should want to build up a discoursive community; it shouldn’t be that hard to get a local activist volunteer to help manage the comments box.

I didn’t mean to imply that moderation is a clear cut issue, but only that (a) the law as it stands gives some perverse incentives, (b) I’m more in favour of people being able to choose how to run their sites as suits them and what they want to do than because a quirk of the law favours one route over another, and (c) I think there are benefits from encouraging robust, but courteous, debate. If you think of a public meeting where you have a couple of people shout down anyone who disagrees with them with insults – and that is not an unfamiliar situation. Should that be against the law (threats of physical violence etc aside)? No. But does that mean that’s how we should always do things? No again.

As for the other pros and cons of pre or post moderation, I’m interested to read what people say, as after all it’s an issue I might change my mind on when it comes to my blog!

As for the other pros and cons of pre or post moderation, I’m interested to read what people say, as after all it’s an issue I might change my mind on when it comes to my blog!

Pinsent Masons gives some good advice, I think.


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  1. Lynne Featherstone

    Blogged my views on the Digital Britain report. In short – disappointing. At length – http://is.gd/i5bX #digitalbritain





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