What Was Gordon Brown Thinking this Morning?


It's a measure of how far digital technology has entered our lives that Gordon Brown should get up at some ungodly hour this morning in order to give a major speech devoted entirely to “Building Britain’s Digital Future”. Even more extraordinary is that it includes passages like this:

Mygov will constitute a radical new model for how public services will be delivered and for how citizens engage with government - making interaction with government as easy as internet banking or online shopping. This open, personalised platform will allow us to deliver universal services that are also tailored to the needs of each individual; to move from top-down, monolithic websites broadcasting public service information in the hope that the people who need help will find it - to government on demand.

And rather than civil servants being the sole authors and editors, we will unleash data and content to the community to turn into applications that meet genuine needs. This does not require large-scale government IT Infrastructure; the ‘open source’ technology that will make it happen is freely available. All that is required is the will and willingness of the centre to give up control.

Not only do we have the key words “open” and “open source” in there, but the UK government is talking about “the will and willingness of the centre to give up control” (and if you believe that last part, then I have a bridge I'd like to sell you.) And yet there is something deeply disturbing about this speech that makes me wonder what on earth Gordon Brown was thinking when he uttered it.

It begins well:

Today I can announce the first funding for the next stage of this research - £30m to support the creation of a new institute, the institute of web science - based here in Britain and working with government and British business to realise the social and economic benefits of advances in the web.

It will assemble the best of world scientists and researchers and be headed by Sir Tim Berners Lee, the British inventor of the world wide web - and the leading web science expert Professor Nigel Shadbolt.

That's really great news – bringing back the inventor of the World Wide Web to the UK. But it should have been done *15 years ago*, when the Web was taking off as a mass medium. This country could have helped lead that revolution; instead it became – as is so often the case – just an adjunct to the US.

This is good, too:

The Department for Transport and the transport industry are today making available the core reference datasets that contain the precise names and co-ordinates of all 350 thousand bus stops, railway stations and airports in Britain.

Public transport timetables and real-time running information is currently owned by the operating companies. But we will work to free it up - and from today we will make it a condition of future franchises that this data will be made freely available.

And following the strong support in our recent consultation, I can confirm that from 1st April, we will be making a substantial package of information held by ordnance survey freely available to the public, without restrictions on re-use. Further details on the package and government’s response to the consultation will be published by the end of March.

That's all to be welcomed, and could fuel a wonderful flowering of mashups. This, though is not so good:

in the autumn the Government will publish online an inventory of all non-personal datasets held by departments and arms-length bodies - a “domesday book” for the 21st century.

The programme will be managed by the National Archives and it will be overseen by a new open data board which will report on the first edition of the new domesday book by April next year. The Government will then produce its detailed proposals including how this work can be extended to the wider public sector.

Why, you may ask, is that bad? Surely it will be great to have such a “domesday book” resource? Indeed it will; the problem lies with the involvement of the National Archives. Here's an example of its digital activities:

Microsoft and The National Archives today announced a Memorandum of Understanding (M.O.U) ensuring preservation of the nation's digital records from the past, present and into the future. Microsoft will make available to The National Archives a system, which combines previous versions of Windows and Office, to help solve problems of managing historical records based on legacy Microsoft Office formats. The ongoing collaboration will also see The National Archives further its innovative approach to sustaining the nation's digital heritage, by contributing their expertise and insight in digital preservation towards the development of future releases of Microsoft products. Having addressed some of the key format sustainability issues through the implementation of the Ecma Open XML format in its latest products, the announcement represents a further step in Microsoft's commitment to digital preservation.

The project will enable staff and visitors at the National Archives to view historical information based on legacy formats in the way the author intended. In addition, The National Archives will be able to improve the accessibility of these documents by converting this information to new, open file formats.

Gordon Frazer, Managing Director UK and Vice President Microsoft International said:

"Microsoft took the step to implement XML-based file formats that unlock data in documents, allowing them to be archived, restructured, aggregated and re-used in new and dynamic ways. As a result, the latest releases of Office use open-standard file formats – Open XML.

As you can see, the only “open-standard” file format mentioned here is Microsoft's – ODF doesn't even get a look-in. The National Archives' idea of “digital preservation” seems to consist of converting older document formats into Microsoft's OOXML: that may be nominally an ISO format, but the reality is it's still locked-in to Microsoft. There's practically no support for the formats by anyone else, making a mockery of its claims to “openness”. The danger is that the National Archives' new role will see it lock down even more of our national digital heritage in such compromised formats. Let's hope that "open data board" will have some teeth and guts.

[Update: that move was from 2007 - see the comment from David Thomas below with some interesting information about current policies, which will hopefully address my concerns.]

But that's a detail. What's really, fundamentally, and insultingly wrong with Gordon Brown's speech is the following passage:

The internet revolution is quite literally creating a different world.

But just imagine if you weren’t part of that world.

Imagine if you had never accessed the Internet.

Imagine if you had no access to the best deals on the virtual high street - that can save you on average £560 a year by shopping and paying bills online.

Well that is reality for around one in five adults in the UK. 21% of UK adults have never accessed the internet. That’s over a fifth trapped in a second tier of citizenship, denied what I increasingly think of as a fundamental freedom in the modern world: to be part of the internet and technology revolution.

This is unfair, economically inefficient and wholly unacceptable.

Consider the advent of electricity. How acceptable would it have been to say that only some people should have access to electricity?

Superfast broadband is the electricity of the digital age. And I believe it must be for all - not just for some.

Yes, Gordon, just imagine if you weren’t part of that world. Imagine if you had “no access to the best deals on the virtual high street - that can save you on average £560 a year by shopping and paying bills online.” That would be unfair, would it not? “Economically inefficient and wholly unacceptable,” as you put it.

And yet that is precisely what you propose to do to people thanks to your Digital Economy Bill. At the behest of the media companies that refuse to enter the 21st century, but cling desperately to business models of the 20th – the Digital Economy Bill is actually the *Analogue* Economy Bill – people will have their Internet connections suspended and will be denied that “fundamental freedom in the modern world” that you proclaim with such ringing rhetoric.

How can you be unaware of the complete and utter contradiction here? How can you proclaim, with one breath, that the Internet is a “fundamental freedom”, and then with the next, hand over a greater right to confiscate that freedom to backward-looking commercial interests (and without due legal process even)?

In the face of this massive cognitive dissonance, all I can do is quote the final words of this morning's speech:

And above all - we have the resolve to make sure that the immense opportunities that Britain’s digital future offers us are available to all - not just to some.

“Available to all...”

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