UK Government Releases Digital Britain Report

The UK Government yesterday launched its long-awaited Lord Carter’s Digital Britain Report.  It spans a wide industrial cluster, from media to broadband, mobility, etc.

Minister Ben Bradshaw, in the launch statement to the House of Commons, said that theft of intellectual property is nevertheless theft, and is not to be condoned. The report has a robust legal and regulatory framework to combat Digital Piracy, and it indicates that the government will do all it can to protect Intellectual Property as a cornerstone of a strong economy.

The report itself states that “unlawful downloading or uploading, whether via peer-to-peer sites or other means, is effectively a civil form of theft. This is not something that we can condone or to which we can fail to respond. We are therefore setting out … a clear path to addressing this problem.”

The report is 245 pages long, is ambitious and is detailed. Yet many say it is not detailed enough. It tacitly acknowledges that it is building on prior reports, that the economic circumstances have changed since those reports, and that we now know more since the Caio and Gowers Reviews were published.

And whilst the devil is in the details, the report outlines further work that must be done before primary legislation can be brought forward. (The UK government’s normal process is to undertake “consultations” and “analysis” to guide it towards policy recommendations, initiatives, and drafting of primary legislation.)  The Recommendations section of the report includes six on further analysis and one for further review. The interim report recommended 8 consultations, whilst this report introduces 12 consultations, including one on P2P.  Nevertheless, the report contains 72 action points.  In that sense, it’s not a finished piece of work. It also falls short, in many instances, of indentifying who will pick up the costs of these interventions. It wills the end but not the means.

The huge amount of detail in the report indicates how difficult and challenging it is for governments to deal with this whole area. It is creating a new industrial sector, in which most parties, including consumers, are to some extent legally illiterate.  That is, the government has to create new laws and conditions on behalf of its citizens, within which the newer economy can thrive and for which the instruments of orderly commerce are known, understood, have respect and are obeyed; in the meantime, government also does all it can to create the conditions for the UK to be a global leader in the digital industries.

The significance of this report is not in the detail, rather it is in the way in which it has emerged, the audience that it will have, and the ramifications beyond the shores of the UK.

One should not underestimate the international significance of this report.  Governmental financial intervention is controlled by European Union “state aid” rules.  In this report, state aid components have been cleared with the EU, the IPR components have been discussed at length and therefore probably tacitly endorsed by the relevant international IPR agencies.  The UK’s approach to regulatory and legal developments are copied internationally.  In short, the UK has not produced this report in isolation.

As the EU’s Lisbon agenda, which includes aspects of Information Communications and Telecoms (ICT), moves towards its 2010 conclusion, the EU can be viewed as “in stasis” on these topics, until it develops a new agenda. Sweden and Spain will hold the next presidencies of the EU; both have taken a keen interest in the report’s development and may view it as an opportunity to create a new agenda. The Digital Britain report may be a basis of such an agenda.

At the same time, one should be aware of the EU’s “water bed effect,” i.e., that initiatives by one nation may bring countervailing movements or initiatives in other parts of the EU.  For example, some nations are developing new or alternative proposals on P2p following the French moves in that area.

Many view the implementation and delivery plan detailed in Chapter 9 as the key section of the Digital Britain report. That a government report (white paper) focuses on detailed implementation is interesting on a number of levels. It indicates a government willing to move from macro economic policy to micro economic policy to deliver economic outcomes — i.e. it’s more interventionist than is customary in these areas. It also recognises that detailed intervention is required to ensure law and order and balance among the various stakeholders.

In effect, the government is creating a new economic sector comprised of old industrial silos which it will now nurture and govern in the round. It is creating a new government agency to do this. Media, telecoms, content, IT, etc., are being addressed as a single industrial sector. This may make it easier to address copyright and technology issues. But of course the laws and regulations have to move on to the statute books, and in that sense it’s an uncertain path forward.  Nevertheless, the ambition is clear.

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