Why democracy needs tax-free broadband

This week’s c&binet talking shop where business secretary Peter Mandelson confirmed his intention to cut off illegal file-sharers also addressed the worrying decline in local journalism.

Traditional advertising-based newspapers have had their lunch eaten by the internet. It’s not like they weren’t on notice. This week was also the 40th anniversary of the first (intelligible) message sent on the internet (LO – it was meant to be Log-on, but the nascent net crashed).

But ever since Tim Berners-Lee started the Web, and Craig started Craig’s List, the writing has been on the screen.

Who cares? Well, anyone who cares about democracy, for a start.

Parliamentary democracies are under-represented in the world as a form of government, but people vote with their feet too. Not a lot of dictatorships have an illegal immigration problem.

Some think you can tell how strong a nation’s democratic credentials are by the freedom with which its press operates and holds to account people who claim to act in the public interest.

That freedom starts at grassroots, with local people being able to find out what’s happening on their patch. And it concatenates up to national and international levels, and horizontally through things like the people who publish this blog entry.

So how could the government help to preserve local journalism?

It got plenty of advice, thanks to a meeting on hyperlocal media in the UK chaired by Rachel Sterne of Ground Report and Will Perrin of Talk About Local.

For a complete list go to Perrin’s blog of the event, but I want to focus on just two items. Anonymous Post-It note-writers said access to the news was crucial. They wanted “Free Wi-fi in cities – please!” and “Broadband for all”.

Computer Weekly reported this week that the government is thinking of taxing Wi-Fi hotspots and WiMax networks, and of levying a £7.50 tax on people with fibre to their homes.

This is precisely the opposite to what most voters want.

But the government faces another problem. It wants people to have broadband, but up to 42% of people, especially over-50s (the richest and most politically engaged age group), couldn’t care less because, they say, there’s nothing in it for them.

Having more local news online could change that percentage. But that would require the government to take a long-term statesman-like view.

It should set at zero the business rates tax on fixed and wireless networks; it should instruct Ofcom to force BT and Virgin Media to interconnect other operators’ networks at more sensible prices; and it should open the airwaves for more channels.

The government prides itself on its commitment to free enterprise; now let’s see it’s commitment to democracy.