Global Economics

Critics Slam Digital Britain Report


A long-awaited road map for the U.K.'s tech future drew fire from opponents of a proposed broadband tax and of efforts to curtail illegal file-sharing

The Digital Britain report has drawn criticism from politicians and technology experts over its proposals for dealing with fibre rollouts and illegal file-sharing.

The report, published on Tuesday, outlines the government's plans for the UK's telecommunications infrastructure and digital economy. Shortly after its publication, Jeremy Hunt, the Conservative Party's shadow secretary of state for culture, media and sport, called Digital Britain a "colossal disappointment" and lambasted the plan's proposal for a monthly 50p tax on fixed copper lines.

Lord Carter, the report's author, proposed the levy as a way of funding the rollout of fibre-based next-generation broadband to areas of the country where operators might not see a business case for investment. Speaking in Parliament, Hunt said a better tactic would be to stimulate investment by changing regulations to encourage providers to spend on fibre development.

"The cable revolution happened without a cable tax. The satellite revolution happened without a satellite tax," Hunt told Parliament on Wednesday. "Everyone recognises that public investment may be necessary to reach more remote parts of the country but simply slapping on an extra tax is an old economy solution to a new economy problem."

Hunt also pointed out that Digital Britain announced 12 new consultations, and called the report "government of the management consultants, for the management consultants, by the management consultants".

The tax will benefit the biggest existing providers in the UK, according to Chris Smedley, chief executive of fibre-optic network company Geo.

"The tax will only raise around £170m per year from consumers, and [this will] be presumably handed straight back to BT and Virgin Media – who will still have the UK market in a stranglehold – and then only [used] to deliver fibre to the cabinet," Smedley said in a statement.

"Just as importantly, the government will still levy rates on fibre once it's in use, perpetuating the problem of cable lying dormant in the ground. Removing these [rates] would have been a quick and easy way to promote a fibre future for the UK."

Smedley also attacked the 2Mbps base speed for universal broadband coverage proposed by Carter, saying it leaves the UK open to ridicule. "The UK is the world's sixth-largest economy, yet this report says it cannot justify similar investments to those already promised in the US, Australia, Singapore, Korea and Japan, which are aiming to deliver 100Mbps as standard," he said.

The base speed was also a sore point for James Parker, manager of broadband at moneysupermarket.com. "Internet users are increasingly accessing bandwidth-heavy services like streaming high-quality video, and our research shows a significant majority already find 2Mbps too slow for many of these services," Parker said in a statement.

Digital Britain's proposals for dealing with illegal filesharing drew praise and criticism from different quarters. The report outlines a process where ISPs will send warning letters to copyright infringers and then, if this does not succeed, release the identities of the infringers to the rights holders.

Nicholas Lansman, the secretary general of the ISP Association, said the group was pleased the government had ruled out introducing legislation to force internet companies to disconnect persistent users of illicit P2P file-sharing. He called that solution "disproportionate".

"I am pleased that the government has taken the position, advocated by ISPA, that unlawful online copyright infringement should be reduced through offering viable legal alternatives," Lansman said in a statement. "ISPA...supports the use of existing legal channels to bring targeted civil action against repeat infringers. ISPA doubts the effectiveness of technical sanctions and would urge that the initial proposals be given every chance to succeed before such sanctions are considered."

However, history has shown that the threat of legal action does not reduce privacy, according to ISP specialist Michael Downs, from the ICT services company Telindus. He added that the report keeps up the pressure on ISPs to police their users, which then places them in a "bad light" with their customers.

"There is an opportunity here for the ISP to not be the police but to work with the content providers to deliver what the customer wants by providing a much greater service," added Downs.

Asking ISPs to provide personal customer data to rights holders could be seen as a breach of privacy and be potentially damaging to vital customer relationships, said Lee Myall, regional director at next-generation network operator Interoute. "It also means a huge additional administrative burden for ISPs on behalf of another industry," Myall said in a statement. "Responsibility should be placed at the source of distribution, away from the ISP."

Robin Fry, a copyright expert at law firm Beachcroft, said Digital Britain's anti-file-sharing proposals showed the government is "floored" by what to do. He believes neither the copyright owners nor the ISPs have any appetite to challenge file-sharers directly.

"There are no votes and no financial incentive to re-run a Pirate Bay trial in Britain," Fry said in a statement. "Users are technically savvy and, even if challenged, many will simply set up further user accounts or sign up to overseas ISPs. None of the proposals in the Digital Britain report, nor our current copyright laws, will change what users are doing."

Fry called for a radical change to the UK's approach to copyright in the digital age. "Maybe it's time for the copyright laws to be redrawn to legitimise what millions are doing already," he said. "We need to consider a general fair-use provision to allow sharing for private purposes – not a debate about who should be the one to tell-off file-sharers. Such a fair-use provision would acknowledge copyright, but permit limited usage for non-commercial purposes."

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