Business and Finance

Digital Britain: the next steps

IT Map 3962782_xl Better connectivity and content, along with improvements for customers, are Westminster’s top digital priorities in its media and telecoms policy paper.

The UK Government has set out its main priorities for digital policy over the next two years. Telecoms and broadcasting policy is reserved to Westminster and falls within the varied remit of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Following a two-year review of the media and telecoms sectors, the department published the ‘Connectivity, content and consumers’ policy paper in July.

Discussions with the relevant industries indicated that the present legal framework was “broadly working well”, broadband prices were among the lowest in Europe and UK-made content is in demand at home and abroad. However, the sectors are fast moving and the UK now needs to maintain its strong position. Four areas for action were identified, outlined below.

Connectivity

National, devolved and local government will have invested £1.6 billion in extending superfast broadband services by 2017. The aim is to ensure that 95 per cent of businesses are reached by 2017. Current coverage stands at 94 per cent in Northern Ireland and 73 per cent across the UK.

Following on from the 4G auction, the UK is aiming to establish the world’s first test-bed for 5G technologies and services. The Government is also drawing up a 10-year plan to deliver greater public value from the electromagnetic spectrum, including incentive auctions.

Connectivity is not all about infrastructure. Around 16 million people in the UK (including 4.6 million employees) lack the skills to communicate, find or share information safely online. The digital training work of Go On UK is commended and a cross-government ‘digital inclusion team’ will look at how more progress can be made. The growth of smart devices will also put more pressure on bandwidth and the Government plans to bring forward a digital infrastructure strategy by the end of 2014.

Content

In a simple step, new legislation will ensure that the five public sector broadcasters – BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and S4C in Wales – are kept at the top of electronic programme guides on digital TVs. This will make it easier for viewers to find popular UK-made programmes.

Tax breaks are supporting animation and high-end TV, and will soon support video games production as well. A network of local TV services also promises to become a “thriving industry”. On intellectual property, the Government is working with the creative industries to remove payment facilities from copyright-infringing websites and also to deter advertising from those sites. The City of London Police, which specialises in fraud investigations, has established a new unit to target intellectual property crime.

A policy announcement on digital radio is due at the end of 2013; the switchover from analogue radio has been slower than expected. The Government will also review regulations for community radio stations.

Consumers

Different standards apply to different media types. Broadcasters are required to be impartial, print publications are free to be partisan and the internet is mainly unregulated. The Government wants the industry and regulators to work on a more consistent approach to standards as print and broadcast content converges with the internet.

There must be no outlet for child pornography or material promoting terrorism. It is unlawful to share information of use to (or which encourages support for) terrorists. The legislation mainly targets Islamic extremism but can be used to bring prosecutions for terrorism in Northern Ireland.

‘Splash pages’ would warn browsers that a page contained illegal images and has since been taken down. Search engines will be encouraged to route searches to legitimate sites and draw up a blacklist of unacceptable search terms. David Cameron has called on search engines to produce a progress report and will consider legislation if progress is slow.

The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre is now a command within the new National Crime Agency.

A Department of Justice spokeswoman told agendaNi that the centre is still able to provide much of its advice, support, expertise and intelligence to the PSNI. She added: “Undoubtedly the fact that the NCA will not be fully operational in Northern Ireland will present gaps and is far from ideal.”

All mobile phone operators have agreed to apply adult content filters and, by the end of 2013, the UK’s four main internal service providers will make filtering the default option in all new broadband installations. Their existing customers will be required to choose whether or not to install filters by the end of 2014. Legislation will ensure that access to restricted adult (R18) material is controlled on catch-up TV and video on demand services.

People need to understand and have control over the use of their personal data but it is also recognised that many online customers welcome targeted advertising. The Government has extended the powers of the Information Commissioner and will contribute to the review of the EU Data Protection Directive.

Unwanted marketing calls and text messages can cause anxiety and distress. Ofcom – the telecoms regulator – will be allowed to share information with the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Insolvency Service (for Great Britain), to improve enforcement against nuisance calls.

Cost

The economic circumstances make it more important for consumers to have a good choice and a recourse if they are misinformed about products and services.

Switching works best when a consumer only has to make one phone call but this is more complicated for bundled services. Ofcom will be given a duty to ensure a “consistent and effective experience” for consumers switching between bundles.

The Government wants ISPs to explain their traffic management policies at the point of sale; the policies of some mobile operators block the use of Skype apps. Ofcom will insist on more transparency if companies do not comply.

Consumers may receive unexpectedly high bills as a result of high data consumption on mobiles. Operators are encouraged to draw up a code of practice e.g. making sure that consumers are notified when they are close to their data limit. Misleading promotional material about premium rate services already breaches the existing code.

The Consumer Rights Bill will introduce a new category of digital content in consumer law, together with standards and remedies. A consultation on the effectiveness of broadcast regulation is also planned, in the light of the sector’s changing landscape.

The policy paper follows on from the UK Cyber Security Strategy, published by the Cabinet Office in November 2011, and the Information Economy Strategy, published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in June.

Views on the Government’s digital strategy can be sent to the department via email (enquiries@culture.gov.uk) or on twitter.com/DCMS

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