The changing face of the UK On-line World: content and security as well as infrastructure

My previous blog has been criticised for not distinguishing between the narrow thinking of BDUK when it comes to rural broadband and the broader perspective of DCMS at large. The point is well made. I apologise.

I omitted, for example, to refer to the possible impact of the impending review of license fee funding for the BBC which now thinks of iPlayer as a 5th TV Channel . If we are watching sport over our smart phone rather than our PC or TV, does it matter to us who carries it. If carriers (BBC, BT, ITV, Virgin, Sky etc.) have to cross-license their sports cover as a condition of receiving license fee funding, what does that do to their business models? 

This again raises the issue of how best to serve those in rural areas who cannot watch over any of the terrestrial services, but does indicate that others in DCMS are not so hide-bound in their thinking and that trade-offs between the vested interests of the players may open the way to more radical ways forward.    

The opening day of the trial of Andy Coulson and Rebekkah Brookes for presiding over news operations that hacked phones also adds an interesting perspective to the parallel NSA hacking of Angela Merkel’s phone. That revelation clearly influenced the the EU Summit last week, albeit the Heads of State were more polite than the European Parliament.

The final paragraphs of the Summit Conclusions should be read as a warning shot rather than the opening salvo of a battle, but the previous detail on the actions necessary to make a reality of the Digital Single Market indicates a clear recognition of the need to make pan-European transactions less difficult, so that they do not have to be routed via the United States. I am told that briefing material produced by the Digital Policy Alliance, with inputs from those involved with practical experience of international payment clearing and transaction services (where trusted UK-based operations already lead the world), helped that recognition.

I wish to congratulate my successor and the team who worked on that exercise to summarise consensus across industry boundaries. It illustrates the importance of the work of the DPA in picking up issues and opportunities that are ignored by others – and why those who are serious about improving the quality of policy formation as opposed to whinging about the consequences should join and participate.     
The conclusions of the summit also reflect an understanding of the need to rebalance national security efforts away from an obsession with facilitating covert surveillance and towards collective action to remove vulnerabilities. This follows the revelation that, for example, the NSA intervened to set a default encryption standard to “none”: albeit one of its other covert activities, at about the same time, was to remove a set of vulnerabilities before they were spotted, let alone exploited, by others. 

Covert surveillance will, however, always remain necessary. One of the more interesting revelations from the Snowden affair has been how much better (and more respected) the UK governance regime for such operations is than that of the US, including how much more secure as well as resistant to abuse. We can argue about the reasons and there are challenges. I commend Peter Sommer’s excellent blog on how these might be addressed. It is rather better than the conclusions at the end of my attempt, some years ago, to cover the tensions from a “partnership policing” point of view.    

We should also remember that DCMS is the UK lead on preparations for the Internet govrnance Forum in Bali, which I have previously described as make or break for future of the Internet as an open and evolving  network or networks that meet the needs of humanity at large, and not just those of current incumbent vested interests. The IGF is also an opportunity to learn from others. What should DCMS learn from the United States regime of regulated communications monopolies with regard to net neutrality, competition and cost of access?

When I was at business school in the early 1970s Michael Beesley used the regulation of the US Baby Bells as an example of how not to regulate. Hence the nature of the Oftel regime under Sir Bryan Carsberg with its focus on price, service and anti-competitive behaviours and approach.

We learned, via a series of case studies, that regulators who focussed on technology or return on investment would fail to do more expensively rubber stamp the continuation of inefficient monopoly practice. We were also taught that it was not the job of the regulator to try to predict or plan the future of an industry. Yet that became the focus of  Ofcom after the recommendations of Don Cruikshank, Sir Bryan’s far sighted successor, were ignored. The new regulator was regarded by Ministers as an arm of centralised planning, to be entrusted to the safe hands of a BBC “educated” government policy advisor.  We can see the consequences. Whether you regard it as success, failure or “too early to tell” is up to you.



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