The Government’s vision for Britain’s digital future is mapped out in the much-anticipated Digital Britain: Final Report, published on 16 June 2009. That vision includes a universal service commitment for 2Mbs broadband by 2012, the roll-out of next generation access broadband to the “final third” by 2017 and the release of spectrum to smooth the transition to next generation high-speed mobile broadband. It also includes the intention for a new legal and regulatory framework to combat digital piracy alongside copyright reforms aimed in theory at enhancing protection for copyright works and incentivising creativity in interactive digital media. All national radio will be digital by 2015. Channel 4 will be given a new direction and the role of the BBC reappraised within a general review of public service content. Among other things, the report echoes concerns expressed by European Consumer Affairs Commissioner, Meglena Kuneva, for whom personal data is the “new oil of the Internet and the new currency of the digital world”. The Government also takes forward proposals adopted by Professor Tanya Byron in her Safer Children in a Digital World report, published in March 2008, including a new system of classification for video games based, solely on the European system PEGI.

BROADBAND

Universal Service Commitment

The Report confirms the Government’s intention to deliver the universal service broadband commitment at 2Mbs by 2012. This will be delivered through up grades to the existing copper and wireless networks, paid for with a combination of public and private-sector funding.

Next Generation Broadband

The Government also aims to deliver a more rapid and extensive roll-out of next generation broadband. Whilst it anticipates that around 50 per cent of the UK population should be able to receive next generation access by the end of 2012, it believes that, left to its own devices, the market is unlikely to deliver next generation access to the final third of the population since the incentives for investment are, in its view, not fully understood. The Government therefore proposes to create an independent Next Generation Fund, based on a supplement of 50 pence per month on all fixed lines from 2010.

WIRELESS SPECTRUM

The Report also sets out the Government’s plans for a rapid transition to next generation high-speed mobile broadband. To address issues relating to spectrum allocation, the Government appointed an Independent Spectrum Broker, who made a number of recommendations in a report published in May 2009. The Government also intends to make existing operators’ 3G licences indefinite in order to encourage longterm investment and a commitment to universality.

COPYRIGHT

Unlawful File-Sharing

To combat digital piracy, the Government is proposing to bring in legislation which makes it easier for rights holders to bring civil actions against suspected illegal file-sharers. To this end, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills is running a separate consultation. The Government also intends to impose upon Ofcom a “duty” to take steps to reduce online copyright infringement, by the application of various technical measures, including site-blocking, protocol blocking and bandwidth capping.

Modernisation of User Rights

The Government is still considering the question of “modernisation of user rights”, which it reiterates is “heavily constrained within the EU copyright framework”. Nonetheless, the Government is keen to create a more effective framework to deal with orphan works, based on legislation enabling commercial schemes for dealing with orphan works to be set up on a regulated basis.

Penalties for Copyright Infringement

Other initiatives in a copyright context include taking forward the Gowers Review recommendation for matching penalties for both online and physical copyright infringement.

PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING

Channel 4

The Government has refined its plans for Channel 4, which it sees as having a key role to play in providing a balanced mix of public service content alongside the BBC. The report sets out intended audiovisual content for Channel 4 as well as an indication that certain joint ventures might be approved to achieve this.

BBC

A strong, confident and independent BBC, meanwhile, is seen as “more essential than ever”, although it also believes that the BBC should not be the sole provider of essential public content. The Report suggests that the commercial arm of the BBC has the potential to become a significant global rights business for Britain and that restricting it to a narrow supporting role to the BBC would be a missed opportunity.

Top Slicing the Licence Fee

Separately, the Government says that it will consult on the idea of a Contained Contestable Element of the Licence Fee, primarily for news. This would mean that, from 2013, an element, broadly equivalent to the 3.5 per cent currently ringfenced for the Digital Switchover Help Scheme and communications, could be maintained for the clearly-defined purpose of funding news.

RADIO GOING DIGITAL

The Government is proposing a Digital Upgrade Programme for digital radio to be completed by 2015. This will include a new licensing regime for national radio multiplexes and a revised regulatory framework for commercial radio. The vacated FM spectrum will be used only by local services. The BBC will be expected to extend its DAB coverage to a level comparable to FM.

DIGITAL SECURITY AND SAFETY

Standards

The Report endorses initiatives that have emerged from the Byron Review, particularly those relating to the adoption of minimum standards by online service providers, and takes forward the proposals for the adoption of a new classification system for video games.

The Report also refers to the Broadband Stakeholder Group Good Practice Principles for Audiovisual Content Information, the Home Office Task Force Guidance on Social Networking is feted as providing the basis of the EU Safer Social Networking Principles and the Report also confirms the Government’s support for the Information Commissioner’s plans to develop a new code of practice on Personal Information Online.

Consumer Protection

Additionally, the Report refers to the proposed Consumer White Paper, to be published later this summer, which will outline how UK enforcers, including the OFT, Trading Standards and the police, as well as business, can work together on national issues regarding online fraud and other consumer protection crime in order to gather intelligence and tackle them effectively. The Government also intends to consult on the penalties Ofcom will be able to impose for contraventions of the Communications Act 2003 and, in particular, the level of fine it can impose in relation to persistent misuse cases involving, for example, extremely high numbers of silent calls.

COMMENT  

The Government’s Digital Britain Report runs to 238 pages and is not short on rhetoric. It gains in substance, however, if not read in isolation, but alongside, for example, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) consultation on formal legislation to address illicit peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing and the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) paper on video games classification. Further consultations on next generation access are anticipated at the end of the summer, along with a formal consultation on legislative reform in respect of orphan works. The DCMS hopes to be in meaningful talks with Channel 4 by the end of July 2009. The ICO also plans to issue its consultation on the Personal Information Online code of practice by the end of the year.

In the coming months, therefore, the viability of many of the Report’s proposals will come into focus. In the meantime there has been a degree of criticism from some quarters, including whether a post election Government (whoever that might be) will follow through on many of its proposals.

The 2Mbs universal service broadband commitment has been dismissed in some quarters as risible as other major economies, most notably the US and Japan, aspire to 100Mbs as standard.

The Report presents no immediate solution to shortfalls in Channel 4’s budget, and hints at problems associated with tieups with BBC Worldwide. The Government’s promise to facilitate the relationship has elicited a predictable reaction from rival channel, Five who say: “The transparency, accountability, competition and state aid issues that it raises will be closely monitored by the industry”. Meanwhile, the BBC seems likely to resist plans to ring-fence part of the licence fee.

With regard to P2P file-sharing some suggest that Digital Britain proposes a complicated set of obligations that place a significant administrative burden on Internet service providers (ISPs) whilst promising little disincentive for individuals to change their ways. Others complain that the Government offers virtually nothing to those who believe that copyright laws are out of kilter with user habits and the general expectations of an information sharing society.

It may therefore be some time before the individual significance of each of the various proposals in the Report is truly understood.