1:37 pm - February 2nd 2009
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.
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.
· Other posts by Lynne Featherstone MP
Story Filed Under: Blog ,Foreign affairs ,Media ,Technology ,Westminster
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