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Monday, 12 March 2012

New UK government transparency advisor Jimmy Wales, if you're reading this...

Jimmy Wales has been appointed a special advisor to the UK government on making public policy decisions more transparent.

The obvious starting point for any transparency drive is Section 35 of the Freedom of Information Act; which, together with similar provisions in Section 36 specifically allow information to be withheld from disclosure if gathered for the purpose of formulating policy or deemed to be prejudicial to 'the conduct of public affairs'.

The rationale goes that companies and their lobbyists are less likely to engage in a frank and open dialogue with government if forced to air their laundry in public.

However, as I've seen with my own eyes, this shield is abused to prevent public scrutiny of 'evidence' presented by lobbyists - 'evidence' which might pass muster of a busy minister and his staff, perhaps not aware of the complexity in a wider debate, but would be shot down in minutes by a panel of qualified experts.

Next I'd suggest Mr Wales takes a look at the closed-door industry meetings driving the digital policy agenda.

I got invited to one after kicking up a fuss, the Minister trumpeted our involvement in a speech in Parliament, saying "hon. Members who are interested in what happened can find out from very public blogs", before closing the door firmly and carrying on as before, despite acknowledging personally the receipt of my letter setting out good reasons to widen participation even further.

Typically, representatives from large multinational organisations and the biggest UK ISPs get invited to discuss 'the way forward' on a range of issues from adult content filtering to protecting copyright, guarding against defamation and defending national security.

The problem being that 'the internet industry' is more than today's giants. Policy that BT, Vodafone, Talk Talk, Virgin,Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon and Microsoft is comfortable with isn't necessarily the best policy for innovative entrepreneurial tech start ups or the general public.

I have repeatedly called for internet policy making to be done in a manner that includes as many voices as possible, because so much of so many people's lives is lived-out online.

We need strong voices defending the public interest at such meetings, as well as smaller businesses and the software development community.

Digital policy now affects so many businesses it's simply wrong to involve only today's biggest providers and squeeze out all other business voices.

It can lead to regulatory capture - regulation which suits today's dominant companies, helping them maintain their dominant position at the expense of younger, growing companies.

And finally it can also lead to bad laws in a complex area that leave a lead weight round the neck of the entire digital economy, plus a massive administrative burden on governments for decades.

Take the Digital Economy Act, passed just under 2 years ago and still struggling to be implemented.

My guess now is the first warning letters won't hit doormats until nearly 4 years after implementation.

Had the government of the day gone for a strictly educational system as outlined in Lord Carter's Digital Britain Report - before Peter Mandelson got his hands on the Bill - I have no doubt the system would already be operational and would not cost the public the predicted £6m I uncovered.

I'm told a row over how legislation will affect schools, libraries, colleges, internet cafe owners and other free WiFi providers has massively delayed the remaining legislation required to implement the UK's 3-strikes policy.

I expect legislation to be published shortly - within days or weeks - but I don't expect it to solve the problem of how to protect open internet access providers.

Repeated calls were made during debates on the Digital Economy Bill, particularly in the Lords, for special protection for those who provide open internet access.

These calls were met with assurances that the problem would be dealt with, in a bid to rush-through legislation. Assurances that are still to  be met.

I've submitted an FOI request to help the public understand the implications, and perhaps also the level of unease within various departments and organisations involved or affected, but I won't hold my breath because of Section 35 'public policy' exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act.


1 comment:

  1. James,

    This blog post is the best exposition I have yet read on how, as Dr Richard Hull identified, elite clientelism permeates Digital decision-making.

    The question "why" is cynically answered as the profit motive and perhaps there is a better alternative cause at work, like community interest, however means misplaced?


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