Republished: Looking at the Digital Britain Report

Originally published on 16 June 2009

Well, the long awaited 'Digital Britain' report is out. It's 254 pages long, and not being at the RSA I haven't had chance to have a full read through yet. I have managed to pick out a few highlights though, and although certain sections made me want to throttle whoever suggested Lord Carter was the right man, he does redeem himself in other areas.

So lets take a look at the good and then the bad;

There will be no additional levy to compensate rights holders for format shifting. Quite right too, the media cartels cannot complain about users getting things for free (read copyright infringement) and then expect us to pay for something we've already bought, just to play it on a different device. Unsurprisingly, this is quite an unpopular decision as far as the media cartels go.

There will be no three strikes rule on file-sharing. Unfortunately, this good aspect is tainted by the proposals used instead, more on that later.

There will be no increase in the cost of a television license. This doesn't mean that it wont increase, just that he hasn't recommended one.

Unfortunately, thats about all the good points I've noticed so far. So on with the bad......

The proposed file-sharing measures would be laughable if they weren't potentially so dangerous. The system will continue on the same basis as it already does, rights holders identify IP addresses. The relevant ISP will then send its customer a letter stating that what they are doing is illegal, after a number of warnings, the ISP will release the customers details as a result of court order. The rights holder will then begin legal action against the infringer.
The issue with this being that they do not have a great track record for accuracy, we've all seen the news stories about their libellous accusations, and have also seen the intimidating tone of the letters sent out by their lawyers. To make matters worse, a number of the torrent trackers have employed the defence mechanism of placing random IP addresses into torrents. This means that people who have never even used Bittorrent could be accused. Whilst I can understand the theory of making the current (and already flawed) method less productive, it is going to severely inconvenience a large number of people. How exactly do you proved beyond doubt that you did not posses, let alone share a file? Regardless of guilt, you are going to lose access to your PC whilst Discovery procedures are underway. Not good!

Worse than this, if certain ISP's fail to reduce illegal filesharing by 70% within 12 months, further restrictions will be allowed. These include bandwidth capping, traffic shaping, protocol blocking, Host (IP/URL) blocking, port blocking, Content inspection (read DPI) and blocking. So, in other words, if a certain ISP fails to reduce illegal filesharing by the prescribed amount, it could opt to block all bittorrent traffic. This will affect those using the service perfectly legally (Linux ISO's are often distributed in this way) through no fault of their own.
A cynic would also suggest that failing these targets is a good excuse for ISP's to mandate bandwidth throttling on all their customers, allowing them to further oversell their bandwidth.

The report also announces a new tax on fixed phone lines, in order to fund further Broadband development. It is currently only 50p a month, but there's no reason the government wont try to inflate it. Whatever the final price, the tax will come into effect next year, and I'm guessing will probably rise year on year. All to bring broadband into urban areas, despite the fact that surveys have shown a lot of those not on the net are that way by choice. The mobile operators are currently expanding their connection, and there's a new HDSPA link coming soon, so urban areas could get faster speeds for a fraction of the cost of fixed line broadband.

Standard FM/AM Radio will be killed off by 2015, despite the current failure of DAB to make any impact. Contrary to the adverts, DAB radio is often of inferior quality in many places, and a slightly weaker signal can make listening impossible (especially compared to AM/FM). Portable DAB radios also seem to suffer problems, and again analogue radio is generally preferable. Either way, Lord Carter wants that section of the spectrum vacated by the end of 2015.


So all in all, the bad currently outweighs the good, but Lord Carter is off to a nice cushy job, so I guess for him it's not really an issue. His lack of foresight in some areas is shocking, especially with regard to the sanctions to  combat illegal filesharing, Content examination will be pretty much useless when all the P2P clients start using encryption by default, but the DPI kit will still cost the ISP a pretty penny.
All his other sanctions put 'honest' customers at a disadvantage, and allowing the continuation of the current processes used to identify illicit filesharers is downright dangerous. The rights holders need to provide more concrete evidence that that file is definitely being shared by that IP address. They also need to make damn sure that they are correctly identifying files, I'm hoping that they use SHA1 sums, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear that they rely on filenames alone.

The scrapping of analogue radio is frivolous, it stinks of an attempt to force DAB onto an unwilling public. Most people will put up with a slight amount of static caused by a weak analogue signal, but DAB just doesn't give you that option. Similarly, based on recent surveys, the phone line tax has probably been created in order to provide broadband to people who just don't want it. Add that to the certainty that it will increase, and you're looking at some strong reasons for Labour to lose votes.

As consumers, we have been protected a little. The media cartels are still unable to charge us twice just to move a track to a different format, though this hasn't been entirely ruled out. More, it was felt a recession was not the right time to be increasing the cost of consumer hardware. So we can probably look forward to that one being levied in the future.