Defining the Limits of Digital Britain


“Digital Britain” sounds like one of those embarrassingly feeble attempts to make dull things trendy, like “Cool Britannia” a few years ago. Alas, that impression is not dispelled by the contents of the interim report of the same name, released yesterday.

It's got lots of the right words, but doesn't really seem to have grasped what they really mean to a digital native.

For example, in the section Digital Content, the one probably most relevant to readers of this blog, we read:

There is a clear and unambiguous distinction between the legal and illegal sharing of content which we must urgently address. But, we need to do so in a way that recognises that when there is very widespread behaviour and social acceptability of such behaviour that is at odds with the rules, then the rules, the business models that the rules have underpinned and the behaviour itself may all need to change.

That sounds promising, since it suggests some awareness of online reality, but later on we find the following statements:

This has led to a fundamental change in consumer expectations, particularly among the young. There is now a growing expectation that content can be found and shared for free. There is a corresponding resistance to paying for content, or accepting that an inability to pay means an inability to access the content.

In fact, there is no logical connection between the two. Research has shown (for example here) that those who share freely are actually *more* likely to buy stuff.

So here is a clear instance where the report has failed to note that the rules do indeed need to change – in this case by decoupling sharing from any reluctance to buy.

Another instance of the same concerns DRM, where it suggests:

Digital Rights Management (DRM), properly applied, also has a role (i.e. where it allows users to access content on any device that they own, rather than being device limited – which is the paradigm that the film industry has encouraged and one that, in music, Apple’s iTunes has now embraced, in a welcome recent co-operation between rights-owners and a device/ distributor).

Both can work when they are technical-enabling solutions that match market trends and go with the grain of the market and legitimate consumer demand. But they have yet to command the assent, let alone active support, of all the necessary players along the internet value-chain.