Digital Britain: welcome to the slow lane

Monday, June 1, 2009

The UK government’s report on the future of the internet and the creative industries replaces the freedom to innovate with an overwhelming impulse to regulate everything.

Digital Britain report

Digital Britain report (PDF) (Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, June 2009)

Digital broadband: are you connected? If you’re not, then you are missing out, according to the UK government’s latest report, Digital Britain (1). But what the government is offering us is a technologically limited ambition tied to a framework of heavy regulation. All this so that it can ram its own vision of the digital future down our throats. While ministers trumpet the internet as an opportunity for technical and social innovation, for the government it is just as much a new means of social engineering.

The report sets out a plan to equip the nation to become a digital world leader. For UK prime minister Gordon Brown, high-speed internet is a utility every bit as important ‘as electricity, gas and water’ (2). Brown’s over-exaggerated enthusiasm may be intended to show that the government has embraced the digital future. But given the government’s inability to manage our water and energy provision without annual fears about droughts and power shortages, the comparison suggests that a fully connected, digital Britain is a long way off yet.

The new report, authored by Lord Carter from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), is nearly two years in the making. The report starts off by making bold claims that risk overplaying the significance of digital technology, arguing that it ‘will define the competitiveness of our economy and change dramatically the way we lead our lives’. It would be nice to believe that this represents some welcome and long-needed ambition from the government.

But these claims are surely overblown. The idea that our lives and the wealth and health of the nation are dependent on our digital connectedness is over-egging the pudding to put it mildly. If getting hooked up to high-speed internet is so critical, then why has New Labour taken so long to achieve it? Many of us, either at at home or at work, have already experienced our own ‘digital futures’ at first hand: while we can connect and communicate more, we also have to put up with more regulation and scaremongering around the potential risks that being online supposedly carries.

Whatever happened to the ‘superhighway’?
Does the report set aside these fears and put forward a progressive and ambitious agenda? The answer is an unsurprising ‘no’. When the government’s public spending has reached its limits, the report is only able to shuffle funds around from one place to another rather than proposing any significant new investment. So the biggest headlines the report has generated are for its proposals to ‘top-slice’ the BBC’s licence fee to subsidise the failing media establishment, distributing funds to Channel 4, ITV and to help establish many local news networks. And although the report promises to increase the number of people connected to a broadband high-speed network, in reality the plans fall far short of what is actually needed.

The most pressing question to answer is whether the government has got what it takes to make an inspiring digital future work. Sadly, this seems unlikely.

According to figures from the Office of National Statistics, in 2008 16million households (65 per cent) had internet access (3). The marketing firm WebSiteOptimisation suggests 95 per cent of these homes are using broadband - that is, a high-speed digital connection - in order to access the internet. By comparison, in the US, broadband penetration stands at 93.4 percent of all those with an internet connection (4).

In order to overcome the shortfall in homes connected to the internet, the government is now promising to connect everyone by 2012 with a connection speed of at least two megabits per second (mbps). But while that may seem ambitious, the UK communications regulator Ofcom has already estimated that the average speed for those with broadband is 3.6 mbps (5). So the government’s unchallenging goal is to get the rest of Britain connected at little more than half the average speed of connections today. It will be slow going on Britain’s ‘superhighway’.

Even achieving this relative snail’s pace will be a challenge. Even though the government is promising to get the nation up to a faster 50 mbps standard by 2017, to get to the initial target speed of two mbps will mean finding around £200million, which will come from the surplus of what is left over from switching television and radio broadcasting from the current analogue system to digital. In order to achieve the faster 50 mbps speeds by 2017, particularly to hard-to-reach rural areas, it will mean imposing a 50 pence per month tax on all fixed-line telephones. Yet even this special tax may not be enough, providing considerably less than the £3billion some commentators believe will be needed to get the job done properly.

But what really makes these plans look feeble is if we compare them with other nations who evidently have far more ambitious sense of what is possible. In August 2008, Japan topped the world rankings with a median download speed of 63 mbps. South Korea came second with a speed of 49 mbps (6).

If that doesn’t provide enough embarrassment, then this will: when Britain reaches its promised minimum of two mbps by 2012, the Koreans will have installed a network capable of delivering broadband speeds of a whopping one gigabit per second (7). That is over 500 times faster than the British target. The level of financial commitment is itself staggering in comparison. The Koreans are expected to spend $24billion in building the network, employing 120,000 people in the process.

Getting creative with the facts
Elsewhere, Digital Britain continues to make unrealistic claims that only reveal how few ideas the government has for the revival of the rest of the economy. So it tells us that a ‘A Digital “Big Bang”’ will apparently transform everything from ‘how we participate in a modern democracy, how we learn, how businesses operate, how we find jobs and how we do them, how we access our public services and how we develop our creativity, make the most of our free time and network with friends.’ It raises the question: will there be anything in our lives that won’t be done online, apart from our most basic biological functions?

When dealing with the so-called ‘Creative Industries in the Digital World’, the report only helps mystify the apparent market potential of the media, entertainment, publishing, advertising and gaming industries, of which, Britain is an apparent world-leader. As filmmaker Lord David Putnam put it, paraphrasing the Digital Britain report, ‘our creative and digital industries are the key to ensuring that the UK has a prominent position in the global economy’(8).

The report has even gone so far as to potentially offer a generous tax break for anyone in the computer games industry — of which the UK is, according to researchers NPD, in second place behind the US with Japan third, as of 2008 (9). When the old productive industrial sectors such as car manufacturing are now in severe decline, the creative industries look positively vibrant in comparison — but the extent of their importance is easily overstated.

Whilst the computer gaming industry appears competitive, it represents a very small percentage of the total economy with exports totalling £16billion or 4.6 per cent of all goods and services exported in 2006 (10). And for the rest of the so-called ‘creative industries’, the figures are not so good. When the figures were last compiled, in 2006, advertising (down 23 per cent), radio (no growth) and architecture (down two per cent) all reported a fall or stagnation in gross value added (GVA) (11). The current situation is likely to be much worse. But if you belong to the rest of the economy – which presumably should be called the un-creative sector - then you might ask, what is in the digital future for you? The act of separating out the ‘creative sector’ from everything else is more likely to inflate creative egos than expand the economy.

Don’t innovate, regulate
The report matches the promise of a creative economy with the heavy hand of the law to defend it. In doing so, it only manages to expand the problems of the creative economy to the whole of society. The focus here is what to do with those caught sharing files illegally online. The report has charged communications regulator Ofcom with the role of enforcer, who will in turn authorise internet service providers (ISPs) to either write letters to these ‘anti-social’ elements, or later on, to move to enforce ‘technical measures’ such as banning, blocking, slowing down internet connections or making offenders’ identities public. It is worth mentioning here that tucked away in the reports’ pages are details of how the government will take direct control over Ofcom’s operations — that is, erase even the pretence of Ofcom being an independent body.

Here is the paradox at the centre of the government’s attitude to the internet: on the one hand is an apparent enthusiasm towards a digital future where there is a real potential to do things differently with faster, bigger networks; on the other hand, there is a continuation of a regulatory climate that will have the effect of undermining this potential. As it says, the government’s plans will ‘create an enforcement climate that will focus consumers on legal sources of content rather than unlawful ones’. But for a long time, the internet has meant that file-sharing, in particular of downloaded music, would be nearly impossible to police given that the ability to copy is central to the very nature of the internet.

Just as you would have been deemed mad to argue against the construction of motorways because they helped people reach their destinations faster, likewise anyone who targets the internet because it encourages widespread access should also appear backward. However, the report exposes the government’s real agenda that expansion must always come with responsibility, curtailment and limits: a contradiction if there ever was one.

For those businesses currently suffering from lost revenues — especially the music industry — the problem will not go away because legislation will keep illegal file-sharing at bay, keeping the ‘old rules’ in place. Thankfully, some businesses such as Virgin Media and the online music-streaming service Spotify (12) have realised that the only way around the problem is to join in and innovate. Virgin Media have announced that it is teaming up with Universal Music to offer customers a subscription of between £10 to £15 per month so they can listen to an unlimited amount of music from Universal’s catalogue (although they appear not to be immune to threatening their customers with suspension if they distribute any downloaded files) (13).

Spotify provides an online music streaming service where those subscribing for free can listen to any music they choose from its servers, but must also listen to intermittent adverts as the price of free music. Those two examples are some of the most recent attempts by industry to work out a business model that can thrive in the online environment. Many more services will emerge in due course. Legislation on the other hand will only discourage such innovation.

Everyone’s included – like it or not
The report spends far too long, running to 239 pages cover to cover, proclaiming what the virtues of a digital world are - so much so, that it ends up offering an unimaginative and instrumentalist agenda. By making sure that we all ‘get it’, the report leaves no room to shape the internet according to our own imaginations.

One way this expresses itself is in the appointment of a digital inclusion champion: Martha Lane Fox, founder of Lastminute.com, one of the only success stories of the dot.com boom era. Fox, the wealthy businesswoman and self-styled philanthropist, says her first instinct will be to focus on the ‘very poor’ (14) and will presumably head up the auspicious-sounding National Plan for Digital Participation, as set out in Digital Britain.

The plan ‘combines an improved offer to increase motivation to get online, with social networking and outreach, and with skills training. The National Plan will be delivered through tailored local and community-based programmes which build on existing networks.’ Those ‘not yet engaged’ will, the report tells us, have to endure ‘a systematic, sustained and co-ordinated approach to increasing Digital Participation’. Never mind that many people don’t want fast internet access or can’t afford it. All shall be included.

Put another way, the government is being instrumental in how it is projecting the importance of being digitally connected onto all of us — especially those who’ve not, as yet, shown any interest. Therefore its pronouncements on children and their educational development goes further, stating the effect that being digitally connected will have on their eventual economic social contribution:

‘Participation in social networking opportunities is redefining how children communicate with each other… pupils who use the internet for educational purposes are more likely to outperform those without web access — by around one-quarter of a GCSE grade in each subject. This in turn increases the UK’s competitiveness by creating a more highly skilled workforce.’

As if this flimsy illustration of the importance of internet access wasn’t enough, the report continues in its breathtakingly patronising attitude toward anyone who might be reconsidering why they might be doing something other than being sat stuck in front of a computer. Apart from missing out on the pleasures of ‘online public services from health to financial services and employment advice… [t]hey miss out on the easy access to relevant information, from the daily updates on weather or transport, to important breaking news at local, regional, national or international levels. Access to news is part of daily life as well as an essential ingredient for democracy.’

This is not only a degraded vision of social life, it makes a mockery of people’s autonomy. It is the government that is manufacturing the digital divide, the very thing they have promised to eradicate. The tone of the report is less about opening up new possibilities than of adopting a moral tone about why digital is good for us and our wellbeing. Hence it says: ‘The concerns of isolation and loneliness, of being the person in a social group who gets left behind, who fails to understand or follow cultural references, are as powerful as motivators for some sectors of society to acquire and improve their digital skills, as the more obvious economic, educational and democratic benefits.’

Put another way: those excluded from the digital world — who may not understand why it is good for them — will be made to understand sooner or later, whether they like it or not. As the report assures us, we must be ‘alert to the potential dangers for those who are digitally disconnected and to the dangers of the increasing digital divide’. The thought of someone like Fox telling a poor, unresponsive family about the benefits of being online doesn’t bear thinking about.

Overall, the government’s approach to the promise of a Digital Britain is an instrumental one that wants to enforce its own particular vision than let us get on with what we want from a digital society for ourselves. And where there is real pressure for change, such as from the music industry, the government only sees a regulatory future instead of encouraging greater innovation and experimentation - something that you would hope, a faster, more resilient network is fundamentally about.

But the real significance of the report is a simpler one still. It offers us a glimpse into the lacklustre and insipid worldview of a government that has become so out of touch and uninspired that it cannot trust us to just get on with living in a digital world on our own terms. This reduces the tremendous potential of a digitally connected society to the moribund vision of a failing political establishment that has run out of ideas.
 
Digital Britain: the Final Report is available to download here.
 
Footnotes

(1) Government outlines plans for UK’s digital transition, DCMS, June 2009

(2) The internet is as vital as water and gas, Gordon Brown, The Times, 16 June 2009

(3) 65% of households had access in 2008, National Statistics, 28 August 2009

(4) UK Broadband Penetration Breaks 95%, Web Site Optimization, 27 February 2009

(5) Ofcom reveals UK’s average broadband speed, Ofcom, 9 January 2009

(6) A report on internet speeds in all 50 states, Speed Matters, August 2008

(7) By 2012 Koreans Will Get 1Gbps Broadband Connections, Gigacom, 1 February 2009

(8) Blown away by a tale of pots and pioneers, David Puttnam, The Times, 20 June 2009

(9) 2008 video game software sales across top global markets experience double-digit growth, ONPD, 2 February 2009

(10) Creative Industries Economic Estimates Statistical Bulletin, DCMS, January 2009

(11) Creative Industries Economic Estimates Statistical Bulletin, DCMS, January 2009

(12) See spotify here

(13) Virgin Media debuts £10 music subscription service, netimperitive, 16 June 2009

(14) Lane Fox to become UK’s first digital champion, Guardian, 17 June 2009