The Government published the "Digital Britain: Interim Report" on the 29th January. The outline plan issued by Lord Carter, proposes Britain being "at the forefront of the Digital Economy". There are 20 recommendations, a number of which relate to what you could call 'macro' policy issues such as an "universal service obligation" for broadband (intended to provide every UK citizen with up to 2 Mbps access by 2012); proposals in relation to the future shape of public sector broadcasting and the switch over to digital radio.
The Report also tackles the seemingly perennial issue of illegal P2P file sharing of copyright material and proposes to introduce a co-regulatory structure (between rights holders and ISPs) and setting up of a new Rights Agency.
In a possible move away from industry self-regulation, Lord Carter proposes that legislation be introduced to make ISPs responsible for monitoring the actions of their customers, retaining anonymous records of serious repeat copyright infringers and contacting those users believed to be illegally file sharing.
ISPs would also be expected to pass the details of infringing users to rights holders but only following the ISP being served with a court order. This, it seems, will help to ease the burden on rights holders of carrying out enforcement action.
The proposed Rights Agency would be made up of "rights creators" from the worlds of music, film, television, computer games and software and the Report suggests that it would have a remit to generate novel ways to prevent piracy and to make the legal use of content more attractive to consumers to reduce the incentive to use illegal means such as file sharing.
This is the latest in a line of official investigations and initiatives on the P2P illegal file-sharing issue. The Department of Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (DBERR) consulted on the impact of P2P filesharing on the arts and entertainment industry last year and proposed methods to help improve the mechanisms to regulate the use of P2P file sharing.
From that consultation it is clear there is a marked polarisation of views between the various groups of respondents (summarised as follows): (a) ISPs who wish to avoid taking on additional cost and legal responsibility for policing user activity on their systems; (b) right holders (in which the record industry lobby continues to be a particularly influential voice) who see ISPs as having the central enforcement role to play against illegal file sharers; and (c) consumers (or rather consumer rights groups) who are particularly anxious about privacy issues in ISPs collecting, storing and using client data as well as the reliability of evidence compiled against individual web users regarding their alleged infringements.
In contrast to the creative industry lobby who, not surprisingly, have been pressing for legal remedies to the issue for some time, consumer groups and ISPs favour a soft regime based on education, improved systems to make material available by legitimate means and enforcement of rights via existing legal processes.
In seeking a self-regulation compromise to the debate, a voluntary Memorandum of Understanding was entered into between the record industry and some of the larger ISPs in July 2008. However, so far, it seems that this has not helped to alleviate the file-sharing problem to the music labels' satisfaction.
The Digital Britain report is only an interim report and will no doubt undergo a number of revisions before it reaches its final form (due in the summer of 2009). What is clear is that despite the laudable objectives emanating from the pen of Lord Carter regarding the P2P issue, the devil will be in the final detail. For any new "co-regulatory" structure striking a fair balance between competing interests and dividing up the financial and administrative burden for compliance will be no easy challenge.