Digital Britain, Analogue Thinking

Clocking in at 238 pages, the final Digital Britain report is an impressive piece of work. It provides a comprehensive survey of how many aspects of British life are being transformed by the transition from the old world in which information is largely stored and transmitted in an analogue format, to one that is inherently digital. Moreover, to its credit, the report is suffused with a sense that this is an epochal and exciting change, not just a minor change of emphasis.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that the report is riddled with old, analogue thinking that vitiates most of its proposals.

A good example can be found in a key statement about online “piracy”:

The Government considers online piracy to be a serious offence. 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 in this report a clear path to addressing this problem which we believe needs to result in a reduction of the order of 70-80% in the incidence of unlawful file-sharing.

“Effectively a civil form of theft” is clearly inserted as a sop to the media companies – calling them “creative industries” would be a gross abuse of the word “creative” - who have been pushing this line incessantly. It's not just wrong – it's an *infringement of a monopoly*, hardly the same as “theft” - it's dangerously wrong, since it distorts all the government's thinking around it.

As I've written many times before, the problem is with the copyright, not the infringing: applying 300-year-old laws designed to protect monopoly purveyors of crushed trees is hardly likely to be relevant to the sharing and remixing of digital artefacts. But no, the report blunders on, and comes out with this foolish idea:

The Proportionate Notification Response trigger that we propose, should be focused on measuring the efficacy of the scheme involving a notification procedure, legal action and other measures as set out above in relation to achieving the 70% target for reduction in unlawful sharing.

George Orwell would have been proud of this “Proportionate Notification Response trigger”, which manages to be both pompous and risible. Setting a hard target of 70% reduction in unauthorised file-sharing is doomed to failure for several reasons. Mostly, because the vast majority of users, particularly younger ones, perceive it as unjust and irrelevant, and will simply work around it. The obvious way to do this is to swap terabyte hard discs with USB connections, or to encrypt P2P traffic. The former aren't online, and for the latter, it will be impossible for anyone to tell what is being transmitted, and so all the careful mechanisms that the report puts in place become totally moot. Of course, if everyone encrypted this traffic, then the visible unauthorised sharing would definitely drop by 70%, so maybe that's the point....

A related problem is that the report offers no real carrots to go with the sticks it proposes (essentially, temporary disconnection, bandwidth throttling, port blocking etc. - pretty much the discredited “three strikes and you're out”, but piecemeal.) For example, it would have been so easy to formalise the “fair use” rights that everyone assumes – but which, in fact, do not exist: making backup copies, format shifting, etc. Instead this is what the report says:

The Government has considered whether, in the round there should also be a modernisation of ‘fair use’ rights for consumers to reflect the realities of the digital age. The Government has concluded that the scope for such modernisation is heavily constrained within the EU copyright framework. The Government is however considering the scope to amend the copyright exceptions regime where we believe exemptions exist, in areas such as distance learning and the preservation of archive material and intends to announce a consultation on these later this year. Clearly, on the broader question of modernisation of fair use rights, further work remains to be done.

Hiding behind the EU is pathetic – it doesn't stop the government going its own way on everything else. And the phrase “modernisation of ‘fair use’ rights for consumers to reflect the realities of the digital age” is such a give-away: this is *precisely* what this report should be doing if it purports to promote Digital Britain. Instead, the government says it will hold a “consultation” about a couple of copyright “exceptions” for “distance learning and preservation of archival material”. The rest of us can go take a running jump.

Time and again, then, this “Digital Britain” report betrays the fact that the government, its advisers and – most of all – the media industry lobby – are intent on locking down behaviour according to analogue norms. You can upgrade your broadband infrastructure until you are blue in the face, but if you are still trying to run it as if its payload were atoms, you're doomed to failure.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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