The Digital Britain debate is a curiously British affair. If we were having this discussion in the US, we would be talking about Net Neutrality and the implications of maintaining a broadband level playing-field with access for all and regulation for all while reconciling the needs of businesses to run services and users to retain privacy and civil liberties.
Here in the UK, the assertion of the need for “universal access” is one of the key needs to achieve what Carter identifies as the best possible outcome from Digital Britain which is Digital Governance and the digital delivery of public services. And this laudable aim, then leads us quickly into needing to discuss the future of public sector broadcasting in the shape of Channel 4 – and strangely leaving the BBC quietly out of the scenario for change.
Lord Carter said today, speaking publicly for the first time since the publication of the report, that he hopes the effect of Digital Britain is to help set an agenda that will re-boot the economy both through public sector investments and private stimulus so that we could replace some of what we became over-dependent on in the Financial Services sector with what we might become grateful for in the digitally revitalised creative industries. There is a tension here between the public and private agendas and it is similar but crucially different from a tension in the US’s net neutrality debate.
While there is considerable debate on the future of Channel 4 and its public service remit, there is precious little discussion about how to stimulate new business models, encourage risk taking and commercial experimentation. The acknowledgment that some of the content industries might want some new protections online is almost incidental. The Rights Agency, Digital Britain’s proposed solution to reconciling the differences between the music industry and the internet service providers, would effectively regulate a process which is already in place today, enabling whistle-blowing on alleged large-scale online copyright-infringers. It would enable the ISPs to maintain their safe-harbour protection and lack of liability for what they carry over their networks by throwing a bone to the content owners to allow them to continue to criminalise their customers – albeit only the very naughty ones.
One of the arguments at the heart of the Net Neutrality debate is about consumer desire to maintain a free and open internet which enables all users and all businesses to communicate, transact and share content without regulation as against an interest from corporations and ISPs to monitor and “shape” traffic and content and to offer various levels of quality of services to those that are prepared to pay for more bandwidth and accept more regulation. ISPs are stretched between a universal access model where they take no liability for what goes across their network and they simply create margin through scale (ie compete with each other for numbers of users and pricing), and more of an old-fashioned walled garden approach where their networks are restricted and the content that moves around them is more tightly controlled and where they can charge a premium for premium content – a kind of HBO online. It’s an unenviable model right now as consumer prices drop and infrastructure maintenance build-out costs increase. It would suggest that the need for content on the networks is going to be greater than ever. Yet, Virgin Media, for example have just failed to get an innovative new music service off the ground because they couldn’t find a solution to the demands made by the record labels who are all too desperate to retain their old ways of making money. It’s hard to see what the incentives are in the Digital Britain report to resolve these kinds of conflicts.
In the UK, the debate is too skewed towards public service issues and not sufficiently engaged in helping meet business interests and formulating viable forms of commercial stimulus. Instead of trying to figure out the balance between public interest, civil liberties and personal privacy as against commercial interest in innovation and in delivering new more profitable services, we are focussing on how best to spend the taxpayers’ pounds on public service provision and the surrounding dependency ecology of small production companies and programme-makers which Channel 4 was originally designed to stimulate. As a friend who is a veteran media buyer whispered to me this morning, as Lord Carter rose to speak “Nobody in the advertising industry gives a @#$%! about Channel 4, they want to know what Carter is going to do to help create real new sustainable businesses”.