The Digital Britain Report


Photographer: Leonard Mccombe. Source: Time-Life/Google

It can’t have escaped your notice that the government published their Digital Britain report the other day. It generated headlines like Broadband ‘in every home by 2012’ (BBC) and Government should prosecute illegal filesharers, says Carter Report (Telegraph).

‘Highlights’ of the report include the information that by 2012 £1 in every £5 spent on new commerce will be spent online (that compares with £1 in every £8 being spent at Tesco a couple of years back). It also reveals that Britain has slipped to twelfth in the EU in the table of digital adoption and skills.

But instead of a list of definite actions and realistic targets, the report is full of words and phrases like examine, find out, review, discover… in other words, it hasn’t got got any new solutions or ideas, and is full of the kind of institution-led concerns about copyright, piracy, blah blah. Like this:

10) Examine the challenges the net poses to digital content – music, movies and games.
11) Find out if the UK needs a Rights Agency to encourage people to use legal sources of copyrighted material.
12) Discover if people are willing to pay a “modest” fee to offset losses from piracy.
13) Consult on legislation to make ISPs help rights holders identify unrepentant pirates.

First of all, are we really still in the position of “examining challenges”? Don’t they know yet? Are they still trying to hold back the tide?

The world has moved on, and old media institutions are still trying to preserve their 1950s business model (pictured above), in which they controlled the copying and distribution of content and consumers paid what the industry demanded.

Consumer reaction to the power shift is based on the fact that the media industry was in the business of ripping off both artists and consumers for decades. In the 70s, we all knew we were being overcharged for vinyl LPs. When the CD came along, we were even more certain we were being ripped off for those. Back in the pre-internet age, the people most likely to breach someone’s copyright by, say, making an entire film based on a stolen idea, were the film industry. The poor sap who submitted a script/treatment and then saw a ‘very similar’ idea on screen with no credit to him/her was helpless to do anything about it. The artists who got pennies in royalties while the record company bosses took showers in five pound notes were similarly powerless.

Then a great big copying machine called the internet was invented and the game changed. The consumer started to get their own back.

It seems typical of the government to come down on the side of (mostly overseas) corporations. Why might this be? It’s because the corporations can employ lobbying companies, PR agencies, lawyers and accountants to put pressure on politicians, where as the consumer is several million individuals with a much lower budget. So when it comes to copyright legislation and attitudes towards the ordinary every day behaviour of consumers, the government gets it wrong every time. Institutions get the legislation; audiences get shafted.

The reaction to the Digital Britain Report from the few organisations who advocate a law which protects the rights of ordinary consumers are mostly negative. The Open Rights Group (“a grassroots technology organisation which exists to protect civil liberties wherever they are threatened by the poor implementation and regulation of digital technology”) makes a brief comment here. Snip: “We are concerned at the government’s proposals for technical ’solutions’ for rights enforcement – technical ’solutions’ to social issues tend to be expensive and fail”.

On the Guardian’s site, Charles Arthur proposes Clay Shirky should take over the report. He calls the report “a mish-mash of quangos, incomplete thinking, and bars set so low you can walk over them.”


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