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Thursday, 13 October 2011

Notes from Parliament & Internet Conference

The internet can't be regulated. The internet shouldn't be regulated. Discuss...

Whatever your view on internet and regulation, it's a separate question whether or not those who care about the internet should engage - or turn their back on - democratic processes which may ultimately result in internet regulation.

Cory Doctorow, all-round internet rights evangelist, turned his back on this year's eG8 summit, describing it as:
“An attempt to get people who care about the Internet to lend credibility to regimes that are in all-out war with the free, open net”.
Cynicism and scepticism are core values for many in the internet industry. I worked in software for 14 years before co-founding Open Digital, I know this. Any regular reader of industry press, especially El Reg, know this.  In many ways it's a healthy attitude.

But with one flaw.  Parliament, together with the EU, the G8, the UN and every other government and international organisation hold more official power than us the lowly internet users. Do I turn my back on the democratic process just because my attendance *might* lend credibility to any resultant legislation? And then what? Blog grumpily from the sidelines and support subversive groups attempting to undermine the legislation I did nothing to try and prevent?

Of course not.  And Parliament, to its credit, is bending over backwards to welcome anyone with a view.  Today I met members of relatively new campaign groups such as NoDPI, the more established Open Rights Group Advisory Board members, journalists, private individuals, industry representatives, MPs, Lords, as well as the usual slew of lobbyists.

We heard from 2 government ministers, MPs, multinational tech cos, a youth initiative, student journalists, a senior civil servant, Ofcom and Nominet.

And the main reason I support such initiatives? They're free to attend - by anyone - on a first-come, first-served basis.  It's not that I don't want to pay, or can't afford to pay; it's that levying a charge introduces a barrier to entry, and not everyone with a view has cash to spare.

Parliament has moved on from the in club where one had to pay substantial annual donations in order to attend events and lobby members.  Maybe this is an aberration, but whilst the circle remains open I support the move, even if it does "lend credibility" to a regulatory process I don't necessarily support.

I'm not going to give a blow-by-blow account of the day, but the highlights for me were:

Ofcom chief Ed Richards seemed flummoxed by my assertion that Ofcom should be more open.  Multi-stakeholder approaches had limited value, he said.  Minutes of meetings and scraps of paper didn't help anyone and shouldn't be subject to FOI. Ofcom always acts in the public interest, and I was living in a dream world if I expected it to release all proprietary data behind its reports.  Ofcom relied on trust in its collaboration with industry, and behind that collaboration was a lot of proprietary data.

 - My verdict? Bollocks.  I'm sorry Ed, but transparency and accountability are core to democracy.  Ofcom isn't an industry alliance, it's a public body.  How can the public trust facts and figures released by Ofcom if those facts and figures are convenient to both Ofcom and the telecom providers it's supposed to regulate? If you can't get the data from operators without a confidentiality agreement, go out and measure it yourself.  And ensure an obligation to release to the public accurate performance and coverage data is enshrined in forthcoming legislation like the Communications Act revamp.

Some, especially the mobile data speed analysis, shouldn't be that hard to replicate - particularly if done as part of a community project, where the public act as willing participants. I have no confidence in either mobile coverage maps or 3G mobile data download speed tests.  I'd like to see the data behind the reports released by Ofcom, and greater transparency as to how tight the relationship is between Ofcom and the large telcos.

Ed Vaizey did a far more convincing job.  Whilst I accept there are perils in taking a government minister at face value, Ed seemed incredibly well informed and sincere.  In some respects he told the audience what they wanted to hear.  He joked about his previous speech advocating network neutrality causing him grief to this day, but if anything he seemed even more convinced of the need for open and neutral networks as the cornerstone of a fair and competitive market in the digital economy.

He's very much about minimal regulation and universal access to all lawful content. 

"The internet industry has done very well on its own until now," said the Minister.  But what of the push to force ISPs to block content harmful to children, I asked?  

"You must understand there's a mood in Parliament - and it's a mood across all parties - that something must be done about the problem."  And this mood will result in legislation - Ed is sure of this, and my own sources in Parliament seem to agree.  So it appears Ed Vaizey, being very much a fan of minimal regulation, who tells me he understands my concerns, has informed ISPs they must do something, soon - or Parliament will act.  (Note: not Government will act, but Parliament will act). 

The upcoming Code of Practice I reported on Tuesday is the result.  It's voluntary, it's about providing choice, simplicity for those who want to block harmful content; and no it's not perfect, but it's also not that bad from a civil rights perspective.  I tend to agree, and the Open Digital statement on porn blocking covers my main concerns.

No end to the Digital Economy Act though.  The final unpublished piece of legislation, the Initial Obligations Code, will be published "shortly". But the Minister knows this whole Act is contentious, and I get the impression he wished it would just go away.  "The Digital Economy Act is only part of the solution ... in an extremely complex area."

I'm still very worried about the fast-track copyright takedown/web blocking procedure I revealed exclusively in June. Ed Vaizey tells us it will be overseen by a court.  But a procedure based on the somewhat flawed premise that speed is of the essence may limit the ability of a court to act fairly in the interests of all parties.  I simply don't buy the need for speed, or the need to create new judicial processes to handle a civil dispute that may or may not help our creative industries.

We also got confirmation that the Communications Act Green Paper will be published early next year.  Apparently Ed Vaizey was going to say "by next spring", but we're told spring in Westminster has a tendency to run from February to November...


PS many other issues were discussed, from cybersecurity to Olympics ICT and stadium mobile data coverage, to rural broadband and EU information society alliance EURIM.  I don't have time to cover it all, but I'll link to other coverage if its around.


  1. so one Ed gets IT and one Ed doesn't?

  2. Ah... I went to the parliament & internet conferences in '09 and '10 but missed this year's.

    Pity - it sounded like a belter... I always relish the opportunity to see Ed Richards squirm. He does it so well. ;-)

    Did Martha (LF) not make an appearance this year?


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