by Mike Altendorf

Digital Economy Bill fails to grasp national benefits

Apr 07, 2010
GovernmentIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Sitting here watching my son collaborate with his friends over Facebook on his GCSE revision I am suddenly struck by the reality of the digital divide. I don’t mean the divide between the haves and the have not’s, but the one between those people trying to embrace the internet and those that are trying to control it.

Take the Digital Economy Bill that was due to be pushed through Parliament before the election. When I heard about the bill my first thought was that it was a mechanism for providing support for Digital Britain. As someone with a passion for technology I envisioned something designed to encourage the growth of technology as an industry.

When I read the detail however I was struck by the fact that most of the measures in it seem designed to stifle and restrict rather than encourage. It is hardly surprising that there is a growing movement demanding that the bill is at least debated before being made law.

Take the section on copyright and piracy for example. This is a great example of old rules being applied to a new world – in this case copyright law designed for the old fashioned rights industry being applied to the digital world and in a way that is probably unenforceable. My son and his friends swap movies and music all the time – sometime legally and sometimes not. They aren’t really aware of the difference and are generally quite bemused by the idea that there could be a law that challenges their right to exchange information and content. In their world the internet is just an open door.

Copyright piracyis also nothing new. When I was a teenager I spent hours in my room copying vinyl onto tapes and recording off the radio. You would then take these tapes into school and swap them with friends for music they had. Although the internet has made this easier many people argue (and I have to say I would agree with them) that had the music industry not charged such high prices in the first place music fans might have been less inclined to break the law.

The irony of all this, is that The Digital Economy Bill still doesn’t stop me from going to the library, borrowing a CD and ripping it to my music collection, or even ‘taping from the radio’ for that matter. So long as I don’t share that with anyone else using my broadband connection, nobody will ever know! Whereas if we change the way rights work to be more fair to consumers and artists alike, more music will be sold to more people.

The media world is also struggling to get to grips with the internet. For the industry to survive let alone thrive it needs to find new ways of making money. The internet means a lot of what a newspaper delivers can be found elsewhere – especially when it comes to news – so why would anyone pay to access it? Braver souls such as Rupert Murdoch have decided their content is worth charging for ( and are making a stand against companies like Meltwater who bypass charging structures by banning them from their sites. But will their readers agree? A lot will depend on what they are expecting customers to pay for – customers already willingly pay extra for premium content on Sky so its understandable that Murdoch feels the same approach could be taken to newspaper. If they can deliver unique content and valuable insights then they may be onto a winner but if their content isn’t differentiated then their readers will just go elsewhere.

However none of this means that that those who look to make money out of stealing other people’s intellectual property shouldn’t be prosecuted. Protecting intellectual property is as important as protecting individual freedom. This is especially true in the UK because most of what we have to sell as a nation is contained within our heads. And this brings me back to what I believe the Digital Economy Bill should have been about, and that is encouraging more people to use the internet to drive business growth and providing government support for companies that do just that. The UK has always lead the way when it comes to inventing things and right now we have many fledgling industries that could be world beaters – gaming, business application development, collaborative tools for the internet … the list goes on. With the right support it’s these industries that will be the engine for economic growth in the future.

There are some very positive initiatives in the bill. I am all for investment in broadband. To use a slightly hackneyed metaphor broadband is the equivalent to roads last century and railways the century before. It is the backbone of the UK economy and is possibly the most critical part of our infrastructure moving forwards. Right now over 50 per cent of those employed in this country are employed by organisations run by or connected to the government. For a normal healthy economy this should be closer to 40 per cent. Addressing this should be a priority for whichever party is elected to government next month.

To touch on the election itself I think this is going to be a real opportunity to see whether any of the main parties are starting to step across the digital divide and to use the internet in the same way as my son does. What I mean by that is it should be a vehicle for open debate, sharing and collaboration not just another channel down which you send the same tightly controlled and fabricated messaging or try to show you are a man/ woman of the people. I am not sure anyone really wants to be Gordon Brown’s or David Cameron’s Facebook friend, but what they do want is to be invited to participate in an open and honest debate about the future.