As we mark the 40th anniversary of the creation of the Internet, what issues concern UK consumers and how might these feed into the deliberations of the forthcoming Internet Governance Forum? Let me briefly list my top ten topics to kick off what inevitably must be a wide-ranging discussion.
1) Take-up of the Net:
In this country, 30% of homes are still not connected to the Net. In recent Ofcom research, it was highlighted that 42% of adults without the Net at home said the main reason was down to lack of interest or need. The self-excluded tend to be older and poorer and 61% have never used a computer. We now have a Digital Participation Consortium led by Ofcom which is addressing the 17 million digitally excluded and the Digital Inclusion Task Force led by Martha Lane Fox which is focused on the 6 million who are both digitally and socially excluded. We could share these initiatives with the IGF and seek ideas from other countries on how to engage the resistors and the refuseniks.
2) Access to a decent speed of current generation broadband:
The Digital Britain Final Report has proposed a basic minimum speed that should be available to all – 2 megabits a second by 2012 – and a mechanism for funding this – use of the ‘surplus’ from the Help Scheme created for Digital Switchover – but, so far, the scheme is not operative and some believe that it might be inadequate and need future-proofing. Again we could share these ideas with the IGF and seek information on similar proposals in other nations.
3) Access to next generation broadband:
At long last, roll-out of next generation access is happened in Britain with major plans from BT and Virgin, but it is widely understood that market mechanisms alone with only take NGA to about two-thirds of the country. The Digital Britain Final Report has proposed a next generation levy – 50p a month on each fixed line – to help fund NGA to the so-called ‘final third’, but the proposal is controversial and there is no certainty of it being implemented. The IGF is a forum is find out how others are addressing this danger of a current digital divide becoming a future digital chasm.
4) Obtaining the speed paid for:
Very few Net users receive in practice the ‘up to’ broadband speed for which they subscribe. Of course, there are many reasons for this, ranging from distance from the exchange to contention ratios to poor internal wiring. We need greater consumer understanding of the issues and clearer information from Internet service providers and the Ofcom-initiated Code of Practice is designed to achieve this. How well is it working? This is another experience which could be shared at Sharm el Sheikh.
5) Tackling illegal file sharing:
Illegal peer-to-peer files haring is a huge issue for the communications industry with bitterly contested positions. Understandably rights holders are angry at the slow progress is tackling an enormous leakage of revenue, but consumer bodies do not want millions of users to be treated as criminals and some users to be cut off entirely. In the middle are Internet service providers who do not want to be cyber policemen and to bear the costs of any enforcement regime, while rights creators – especially in the music industry – have a range of views. We need a proportionate and graduated scheme with due process and a ‘fair use’ provision. The IGF is a place where the different stakeholders can come together and international practice can be compared.
6) Dealing with illegal and harmful content:
The UK is rightly proud of its regime for tackling online child abuse images, but the Digital Britain Final Report challenges the industry to provide a more secure funding model for the Internet Watch Foundation and, although the UK Council for Child Internet Safety has been set up, Tanya Byron has criticised the Government for the lack of effort to implement her action plan. As for harmful content on the Net, we still have not had a calm and intelligent debate about how this might be defined and tackled. I have spoken more about this challenge in this presentation:
7) Combating spam and scam:
If there is one thing that angers Net users everywhere in the world, it is the volume of rubbish that overwhelms their in boxes and – even when this content is blocked – the effect it is having on slowing down the Net. In volume terms, we are no nearer solving this problem than we were five years ago. By definition, it is a global issue and the IGF is a place to explore new solutions with a new sense of urgency.
8) Providing IT support:
Too many people in the industry underestimate the problems that Net users have setting up and maintaining their equipment, installing and up-dating protective software, and dealing with problematic content and activity online. If you are at work, you have the IT Department (I know!). If you are at home, unless you have a friend or young relative who is really IT literate, often you are at a loss even for simple things. There is a case for having an IT equivalent to NHS Direct or Consumer Direct. How would an IT Direct scheme work? There is more detail in this blog posting by Lindsey Annison of Fiver to the Home – Fibrevolution:
At Sharm el Sheikh, we could see whether any other country has done something like this.
9) The switchover of public services:
Around the industrialised world, governments and local authorities have been investing heavily in making public services available online but the take-up of these digital services has been very variable. One way of stimulating take-up of these services, saving public money and promoting digital inclusion is to have a digital switchover of public services as proposed in the Digital Britain Final Report. However, since those citizens not on the Net are precisely those most likely to be users of public services, this proposition raises a serious public policy issue. Other countries are facing exactly the same dilemma and the IGF would be a good place to debate this.
10) A forum for policy discussions:
The kind of issues raised in this blog posting are of great interest and often concern to Government, industry, consumers and a variety of other stakeholders, but we have no adequate forum to discuss them. The UK IGF is a commendable attempt to move in this direction, but it has limited representation, presence and resources. How do we ensure that these issues are debated in an informed way with all those effected? Is there any international experience that would be useful?
Roger Darlington is a member of both the Communications Consumer Panel and the Consumer Focus Board but writes here in a personal capacity.