Digital Britain: The UK Government’s vision for a 21st century digital economyJuly 7, 2009

Last month, the UK Department for Culture, Media, and Sport released Digital Britain, a report regarding the future of communications infrastructure in the UK, how to deal with challenges of a digital economy (such as copyright infringement), and containing policy recommendations regarding how to move forward. Click below for our thoughts on the report and associated documents.

The Digital Britain report is the UK's new comprehensive 21st Century Tech Master Plan. In order to usher in the new digital age, the goals of 250-page report are to: assist the private sector in creating an effective communications infrastructure; incentivize British creative industries in the digital age within a "clear and fair legal framework;" ensure that people have the ability "to flourish in the digital economy, and that all can participate;" and improve the role of government and its services in the digital age. The report covers many facets of the multimedia spectrum, from television and radio to broadband and computing.

Digital Britain has received both strong praise and criticism from various interest groups. One of the most controversial and important aspects is the plan to raise £1.5bn to help pay for a nationwide broadband network that will provide nationwide access at 2Mb/s by 2012. The report seeks to achieve this with a monthly 50p (£6/year) broadband tax on fixed phone lines into homes. This proposed universal broadband access requires a comprehensive IP strategy to tackle the inevitable copyright issues that will arise. Illegal Filesharing

One of the most notable aspects of Digital Britain from an IP perspective is the attempt to curtail illegal filesharing. The report aims to help protect right holders and encourage innovation by proposing a multi-step plan. Initially, the plan requires Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to issue letters to illegal downloaders. After one year, if the initial letter-writing campaign does not result in 70% of the letter recipients ceasing the illegal downloading, the ISPs may have to disclose the names of offenders to the regulatory Office of Communications (Ofcom). In turn, Ofcom would then be able to use a variety of civil remedies such as injunctions, blocking IP addresses, filtering content, and reducing bandwidth allocation to prevent further illegal downloading from the repeat infringers.

This plan has been met with a mixed response between the content owners and the ISPs. Though encouraged that they will not be required to literally pull the plug on infringers, ISPs generally fear that the new rules may impose substantial administrative costs on them for the sole benefit of right holders. They are also concerned about the legal ramifications of being forced to disclose personal information – as a breach of contract concern as well as the invasion of privacy issues. Although the rights holders should find the new policies to be more generally favorable, they are have concerns about the policy's teeth. The year-long wait for any remedy beyond letters, as well as the high probability that the more tech-savvy infringers will simply rotate IP addresses, use offshore ISPs, or find other ways to circumvent the approach are all reasons for concern.

Modernized Copyright Licensing

Digital Britain also seeks to revise the UK's 300-year-old copyright system to keep pace with the digital age. In 2006, the Gowers Review of Intellectual Property was released, seeking to improve the UK IP system in the age of globalization. Two years later, with more than half of the Gowers plan implemented, the government launched its Copyright Strategy, with the hopes of further revising the UK's copyright framework to be in concert with the multi-national EU policy. Digital Britain endorses the Copyright Strategy, with a focus on making obtaining licensing easier and finding a competitive balance to incentivize creativity and promote prosperity.

Digital Britain dodges most of the specifics beyond that overall vision, however, kicking some cans down the road for "review" (such as private copying and format levies), and delegating others to the EU (such as a broader fair use doctrine or retransmission levies). The exact regulatory role of the "Rights Authority," a re-branded industry version of the Rights Agency tasked with assisting Ofcom in designing and implementing possible changes, also remains to be seen.

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