No ifs, no 'bots'

Wilf_4x3.jpgWilf Stevenson outlines our plans to improve, and add to the government’s digital economy bill

While the Digital Economy Bill – which gets its second reading in the House of Lords today – includes some sound ideas that Labour can support, we by no means consider it a good piece of legislation. Indeed, it weaknesses lie as much in what it omits as what it contains.

To start with, a Labour version of this Bill would properly recognise the importance of the digital economy to our country. And in doing so, it would be much more ambitious about delivering both ultrafast broadband and a secure mobile network coverage to everyone who needs it – wherever they live. A universal service obligation (USO) is the correct way to approach this issue; but we should be setting high standards, with Fibre to the Premises (aka, FTTP) as standard and a minimum speed of 1 gigabyte.

Labour called for a USO to be introduced back in 2010, with fully costed plans for it to be achieved by 2012. The 10 megabits speed promised in the Bill is less than half of what is needed to achieve superfast broadband, and it will be out of date by the time it is implemented.​ There are also significant doubts about the pledge to extend coverage to the entire country, particularly in rural areas; along with no detail from the government on how this is to be achieved.

There are welcome measures in the section of the Bill about access to digital services, with Ofcom gaining powers to set conditions for automatic compensation to be paid to users where providers fail to meet a specified standard or obligation. Plus a decent proposal to help consumers switch communications provider – something moved by Labour in the 2015 Consumer Rights Bill but which the government refused to accept.

The Bill also seeks – albeit belatedly through a Commons Report stage amendment – to deliver the Conservative manifesto pledge to introduce robust, online age verification checks. We share the objective of protecting children from viewing harmful material on the internet but it is unclear how the government’s proposals would work in practice; including whether they will catch the sort of social media material which causes most problems. We also take the view that age verification is only part of the story and ministers should use the Bill to make provision for effective sex and relationship education for young people. In addition, we will put pressure on the government to introduce measures to deter internet trolls.

The Bill contains ambitious proposals to enable data sharing for a public benefit, as part of a wider aim to deliver public services on a ‘digital by default’ mode. There are however, legitimate concerns about privacy and the security of personal data, in response to which ministers must do much more to answer.

One particular provision that that we are looking to add to the Bill is to prevent secondary ticket operators from using computerised systems – so called ‘bots’ – to snap up seats at concert and sporting event as soon as they go on sale, before then releasing them at premium prices.

Finally, following the signing of the BBC’s Royal Charter, the Bill contains details of OFCOM’s new role as regulator. Along with clauses that would put into law the government’s wish that the BBC take over responsibility for providing free TV licences for the elderly, along with any future policy responsibility. A controversial proposal that is likely to be hotly debated by all sides in the House.

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is Shadow Higher Education Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @Missenden50

Published 13th December 2016

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