Government 2010: Government and the Internet

This session’s chaired by Dominique Lazanski, alongside Hamish Nicklin from Google, Nominet‘s Phil Kingsland, Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group and Phillip Virgo from EURIM.

They start with a question from the chair:

How does Government regulation help, or hinder, the growth of the digital economy in the UK?

Phil Kingsland replies first, with the observation that trying to regulate something inherently international like the Internet is intrinsically difficult. Thus far we’ve had self-regulation, and much of the contentious activity on the Internet isn’t in itself new behaviour – it’s been happening offline before too, and there are already laws which cover it.

‘Sometimes, bad things happen on the Net’, says Jim Killock, but like Phil he observes that what you do on the Internet is already subject to national law. What’s more, people self-police bad behaviour: just ask Jan Moir. From there, he goes straight to net neutrality, citing Skype as an example. Next up: digital music and price gouging by the established record labels, as a bridge to making the case for copyright reform, and from there to a generalised call for IP reform. We’re hitting all of the ORG talking points in order, and that’s his five minutes.

Hamish from Google has to follow that. He argues that the Internet has been so successful because it’s been free and open; he believes regulation can be a good thing as long as it accords with those principles. Very short and sweet!

Philip Virgo starts with a confession: he was one of the original architects of software copyrights in the UK. He then says he believes that they outlived their usefulness ten to fifteen years ago, which is quite a statement! He then talks a bit about global commerce – he transition from physical to electronic trading actually happened 30 to 40 years ago, and more recently it moved to the Internet. But, then, what is the Internet?

The man’s a quotemaster:

What’s the colour of the underpants of this wonderful emperor we’re talking about?

Anyway, he says it’s impressive engineering, overlaid with governance principles imbued with the spirit of Haight-Asbury circa 1967, overlaid with lots and lots and lots of lawyerese. (Sounds about right to me.) It’s also the latest evolution of the world’s most complex machine in the world – the global telecoms system.

We’re surfing the cyber-crud…

says Phillip. Apparently 22-player online football games are huge in Korea, but the Internet connections aren’t good enough here to support that – so instead, all they can do is download pirated music… (That’s a new argument for net neutrality, I reckon.). He’s worried about the way we’re ceding the lead – particularly in IPV6 – to China; he’s come back to that twice.

Jim Killock really doesn’t like the music industry very much. That’s probably not a surprise!

We’re moving onto the Digital Britain report now. Jim starts; on mandatory disconnections for illegal filesharing, which cropped up in EU legislation:

If you caught someone littering, you wouldn’t ban them from the street, would you?

Quality rhetoric, and he’s understandably riled by the lack of due process. Hamish from Google brings up technological solutions – can you prevent rights violations from happening? YouTube’s rights-detection software is an example here, letting rights holders dictate how their IP is used. Jim’s okay with that within a bounded service, but uneasy with that on a global scale: he calls it mass surveillance of the Internet for copyright enforcement. Spotify comes up; apparently it’s, singlehandedly, drastically cut P2P traffic.

And Twitter intrudes! Hello out there. @glynwintle asks about three strikes: everyone immediately dismisses it. Phillip Virgo now brings up teenagers in Lambeth eking out their money by getting songs from cheaper Chinese music download sites (which he claims may or may not be legal).

Phil brings up the Internet Watch Foundation, and the way they’ve managed to eradicate child abuse images from UK hosting, as a success for self-regulation. In general, in fact. he thinks the public interest is best represented by self-regulation.

Jim is worried that the government doesn’t get to the public interest because they’re too busy listening to industry lobby groups; Hamish wants to see the Internet stay open and free because that’s best for commerce.

And Phillip gets the last word. He talks about the children’s session at the Internet Governance Federation, saying they grasped the issues by the throat:

No-one over the age of thirteen should be allowed to vote on any Internet regulation.

And that’s that! Fascinating session.

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Dave Briggs

I'm an experienced senior manager in digital and ICT, looking for interim engagements to modernise technology teams to help organisations transform.