Digital Britain and Cameron’s dubious moral crusade

SUMMARY:

Self-congratulation, warmed-up policy commitments and the re-inforcement of a mis-judged moral crusade to score ‘tough’ headlines – the latest government report on Digital Britain.

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Cameron – something must be done!

What do you get for two years worth of work and research into the digital landscape of a nation?

Well, if you’re the UK government’s Department of Culture Media and Sports (DCMS) you get a report entitled  Connectivity, Content and Consumers: Britain’s Digital Platform for Growth which is intended to paint a clear picture of the path the UK’s digital economy will take.

What it actually provides is an incredibly high level broad swap of digital blandishments and political opportunism, but we’ll come back to that.

There are four main areas of coverage for this report:

  •  Establishing world-class connectivity throughout the UK
  • Supporting the production of world-beating innovative content and services that originate here in the UK, but that are in demand across the globe
  • Helping to keep the cost of living down by ensuring consumers have choice about the range of communications and media services available to them
  • Ensuring  consumer safety in an increasingly online world

There’s a lot of ministerial self-congratulation going on in the executive summary that many may regard as thoroughly undeserved. For example, a top line conclusion of two years worth of research is that the current legislative framework in the UK is “broadly working well, supporting economic growth and innovation”.

Sorry, come again? This is the UK in 2013 we’re talking about, yes? OK, well we may need to agree to differ on that one, but let’s press on.

The report states:

We are better connected now than we have ever been, and no longer limited by our physical location. Nearly all households and businesses can access at least current generation broadband and we have some of the lowest priced broadband in the EU.

As someone who’s had no broadband (for which I pay BT £25 a month for a 20mg service that can only deliver 6mg on a good day!) since Monday morning – and unlikely to see it restored until the end of this week –  you’ll forgive me for snorting out loud about that (Somewhat embarrassing in the Starbucks I’m currently using as my office!)

There’s a general re-run through the broadband roll out plans for the UK as well as a quick reminder of the good work of Martha Lane Fox on digital inclusion, but all of this has been said before and nothing new is added to the mix here.

More to the point, as the DCMS congratulates itself on broadband roll out across the UK, the National Audit Office (NAO) parliamentary watchdog has in the same month published a report criticising the government for letting its broadband delivery project in the UK run 22 months late!

Public service

Praise is offered up to British broadcasters with a commitment to make sure that Public Service Broadcasters (which now appear to include commercial station ITV in their number according to DCMS) will stay at the top of Electronic Programme Guides.

That’s admirable perhaps, but the Reith-ean undertones seem hideously inappropriate at a time when every political party still wants to be inside the Murdoch tent for reasons of electoral pragmatism and new digital channels emerge every month. But it’s a gesture towards the validity of the public service broadcaster at the very least.

On the consumer cost of living angle, again some admirable enough intentions, such as making it easier to switch suppliers and the proposed introduction of a new category of digital content in the draft Consumer Rights Bill together with a set of statutory rights including:

  • The right to get what you pay for
  • The right that digital content is fit for purpose
  • The right that faults in what you buy will be put right free of charge, or a refund or replacement provided.

Lots of good words in this section, but until we see how they translate into actions it’s difficult to come to any firm conclusions here. The roadmap is fine, but how will it work in practice. What providers are expected to do and what they actually do do is an age old problem that pre-dates the digital age of course.

Cameron’s crusade

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Savile – with the emphasis on the vile

Then we come to ensuring consumer safety in an online world. This is where we run head long into the headline grabbing stuff.

For non-UK readers, it’s important to understand that periodically the UK descends into what might be described as a collective moral crisis as a nation.

We are currently in the middle of one, triggered by an outbreak of hunting down alleged celebrity paedophiles and sex pests from the 1970s entertainment industry.

This has come about following the discovery that during his lifetime Sir Jimmy Savile, a UK ‘national treasure’, was in fact one of the most monstrously prolific child abusers in history. Savile hid his crimes in full view, befriending the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Prince Charles, so the panic in the establishment that followed these revelations was significant.

There would inevitably be consequences. I always feel there’s nothing more dangerous than a politician who decides that ‘Something must be done! This is something!! This must be done!!!’. It almost never results in good policy.

So it is here where the main impact  – other than rounding up a lot of ageing celebrities in dawn raids on their homes – has been the rather nauseating sight of Prime Minister David Cameron launching on a moral crusade to make the likes of Google, Microsoft et al to ‘do something!’ about filtering illegal pornographic content.

The fact that the Prime Minster completely misunderstands what role those companies play in internet content delivery or how the internet actually works is apparently as unimportant to the debate as the fact that Safe Search filters are already present on all of their services anyway!

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No other agenda whatsoever

But this has become a political witch hunt against internet service providers, egged on by the likes of the right-wing Daily Mail newspaper whose rabid ideological agenda against Google has never been more nakedly exposed. In every other aspect of life, the Daily Mail demands that parents, not the state, must take responsibility for the actions of their children, except one: the internet.

Flawed thinking 

Now don’t get me wrong. I have zero problem with anything that genuinely tackles the vile scourge of child pornography, or indeed any form of illegal adult content, on the internet. Positive action to wipe out this appalling material is only to be encouraged.

But Cameron is just chasing ‘tough action’ headlines – and, to what should be his shame, he’s getting them from the Daily Mail and Co for his plans to force through new default content filters.

The trouble is, censorship is a genie that can’t easily be put back in its bottle. The Open Rights Group (ORG), which campaigns for digital freedoms, has already pointed out that as well pornographic material, such filters may block “violent material”, “extremist related content”, “anorexia and eating disorder” and “suicide related websites”, “alcohol” and “smoking”.

Now some of these may be negative and objectionable clearly, but others may be self-help or advisory sites. A filter isn’t going to make a distinction.

Filters can also be used to block ‘web forums’ and ‘esoteric material’. Who the hell defines what ‘esoteric material’ is? David Cameron? A future government? I’m not sure I’m going to be entirely convinced that the Daily Mail definition of ‘esoteric’ is going to sit comfortably with me.

As the ORG’s Jim Killock says:

“What’s clear here is that David Cameron wants people to sleepwalk into censorship. We know that people stick with defaults: this is part of the idea behind ‘nudge theory’ and ‘choice architecture’ that is popular with Cameron.

“The implication is that filtering is good, or at least harmless, for anyone, whether adult or child. Of course, this is not true; there’s not just the question of false positives for web users, but the affect on a network economy of excluding a proportion of a legitimate website’s audience.”

But the Connectivity, Content and Consumers: Britain’s Digital Platform for Growth report makes it quite clear that the current false moral crusade will go on, complete with astonishingly naive assertions such as:

By the end of next year ISPs will have prompted all existing customers to make an unavoidable decision about whether to apply family friendly filters. Only adult account holders will be able to change these filters once applied.

You think? Yup – and there’s no such thing as under-age drinking or smoking either…

The pity is that there are some good child protection ideas in the mix, such as a more proactive role for the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) in searching for images of child abuse on the internet.

IWF will also work more closely with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP)  to get images removed, identify victims and prosecute the scum behind the posting of such content in the first place.

That’s the kind of proactive, practical action that needs to be taken rather than a blind march towards censorship that may well be motivated by good intentions, but which has potentially massive consequences for a digital democracy.

Verdict

It’s a tidy enough round-up of current UK government digital policy in a number of key areas, but if you’re expecting any great revelations from the report, then lower your expectations.

Effortlessly disappointing.