Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries Ed Vaizey showed off his digital credentials yesterday by announcing on Twitter that he has introduced the new Digital Economy Bill to Parliament.
Vaizey said the bill represents “part of our ambition to become the world’s most digital nation”; and is also being sold as “having consumer interests at its heart”. The complete document has now been published to Parliament’s website and weighs in at a hefty 100 pages; nearly two thirds as long as the Chilcot report.
The bill has several priorities, amongst them to give everybody in the country the right to fast broadband, provide automatic compensation for consumers in the event telecoms providers do not deliver sufficient quality of service, make it easier for network providers to deliver super-fast broadband, introduce harsher penalties for nuisance callers, and protect minors from pornography by requiring all adult sites and applications to provide age-verification checks.
It will also introduce new sentencing options for infringement of copyright laws, bringing them in line with current penalties for “physical infringement”, and make it easier for designers to give notice of their rights, allowing businesses to mark their designs with web addresses as a means of flagging their registered design rights – a process known as “webmarking”.
Probably the most important aspect of the bill, however, is the provision of “digital infrastructure including superfast broadband and 4G mobile networks”. Although Vaizey announced that “nine out of ten UK homes and businesses can now access superfast broadband”, the Electronic Communications Code is set to be reformed, giving communication providers the ability to install mobile and broadband infrastructure more cheaply, with less red tape.
They will also be granted the same rights to land and street furniture as utilities companies, something which network operators have long campaigned for. BT has indicated a willingness to assist with the USO, providing long-range VDSL over copper connections, with satellite and fixed wireless technology also mooted as possible solutions.
This forms a key element of a new broadband Universal Service Obligation (USO) which gives citizens the right to demand a 10Mbps broadband connection, awards extra powers to OfCom to help consumers access better information, and enables the public to switch products more easily, and be compensated should things go wrong with their broadband services.
The government is also set to benefit from the bill, which gives it new powers aimed at helping “deliver better public services and produce world leading research and statistics”.
The bill will allow public authorities to “connect” where the objective has a public benefit, give public authorities more power to share public information to combat public sector fraud, which the Dept. for Culture, Media and Sport says costs the country billions per annum, and to chase billions of pounds’ worth of overdue debt owed to the government. There will also be tougher safeguards of personal data, “reinforcing the Data Protection Act” with new offences for unlawful disclosure.
Unlawful Direct Marketing will also be cracked down upon and the Information Commission given stronger powers to enforce sanctions against nuisance callers and spammers.
The government says it is spending £1.7 billion on rolling out broadband and that it is on track to deliver it’s promised target of connecting 95% of the U.K. to superfast broadband by the end of 2017.
“We want to make the UK a world leader in digital provision – a place where technology continually transforms the economy, society and government”, commented Culture Secretary John Whittingdale.
The Alternative view?
Although on the surface the bill appears to be focused on consumer rights and delivering world leading digital services to British citizens, there are, perhaps, questions to be answered concerning just how much privacy citizens will have to sacrifice to allow the government to stamp out the “billions” of pounds it claims to lose to fraudsters each year, and chase outstanding debt.
Additionally, it would appear network providers will benefit significantly from the bill, being able to install services closer to homes, on streets and across the countryside, in order to achieve what seems a pretty meagre increase of just 5% more people people connected to superfast broadband. Has anybody asked this 5%, who presumably live in obscure parts of the countryside, whether they need or want superfast broadband?
The Bill will be debated at the Second Reading stage before Autumn 2016 when it will move to the House of Lords subject to parliamentary time tabling, with Royal Assent expected in Spring 2017.
If you start reading now, you may just have time to wade through the 100-page document before it becomes enshrined in law!