Digital Britain Report – What Does It Mean For Music?

Lord Carter’s (nothing to do with JimBob and Fruitbat, sadly) Digital Britain report thunked onto tables yesterday (it comes in at a weighty 245 pages) to an overwhelming sigh of “meh” nationwide.

The report covers a wealth of topics, from the future of the BBC, to broadband speeds, to piracy and illegal filesharing – much it already judged to be too little and too late to make serious change to a digital landscape that at its worst can resemble the Wild West.

Worryingly, some of the findings have been dismissed as undemocratic. Take for example the fact that every UK resident with a fixed-line phone will pay a new 50 pence per month (£6 per year) levy to fund faster net access – raising about £150 million a year overall. That, to me, sounds fair for what we the web-users get in return – better, faster broadband.

But you can understand those who feel frustrated by yet another government ‘stealth tax’ they didn’t vote for.

It’s the anti-piracy bits that get a bit weird. The report proposes that the people who pipe the internet into your home become responsible for stopping you fucking about on it. So Orange, or BT, or Tiscali or whoever pumps NME.COM into your computer is expected to monitor what you do with their lovely webjuice and slap you on the wrist should you persistently share or download illegal files.

The target is a reduction of illegal filesharing by 70%. But quite how they’re expected to tell legal from illegal, i have no idea. Seriously, if you know please post a comment below. If someone’s pulling a load of Linux downloads from a Torrent site, how will this be green-lit as all above board, while copyrighted material sets off a flashing red buzzer somewhere?

It’s all well-meaning – after all, the music, film and games industries could be brought to their knees and ultimately destroyed by piracy. But can it really work? Almost no one seems to think so.

The ISPs have said that they’re happy to help out wherever possible – but don’t expect them to spend any money on having do so. They have no interest in subsidising the policing of the web. Plus, would profits-driven companies like telecoms providers really cut-off customers for anything other than not paying their bill?

And how would it affect the public image of companies like Orange who spend millions of marketing bucks on appearing to be the sunny, fun brand that ‘connects people’ if they become known as the ones who grassed up some kid for sharing music with his mates? You can see why ISPs are hardly chomping at the bit to get involved.

Music industry representatives, like UK Music chief executive, Feargal Sharkey (yes, him of The Undertones and ‘Teenage Kicks’ fame) are frustrated as the proposals are likely to take several years to get up and running anyway.

And a copyright lawyer has already said that attempting to make ISPs responsible is “like asking bus companies to tell passengers not to be late for work, or making airlines responsible for all drug smuggling.”

Surely the most persistent file sharers are the most tech-savvy anyway – and will find it easy to set up new accounts with foreign ISPs or under new names should they have their broadband access revoked?

What seems to be missing is a bid to grow digital literacy. A recent survey conducted by independent researchers Opinion Matters suggested that 46% of UK music fans do not know how to legally consume music online, but 94% say they would choose a legal music service over an illegal service if it had the same range of music and was easy to use.

Hardly anyone then – beyond core music fans like NME.COM users, for example – seems to know that music is already available online for free, thanks to services like We7 and Spotify (where online advertising pays record labels and artists for their music).

In the U.S provides commercially-supported video on demand – TV and movie streams – a service that should be with us in the UK this autumn.

As these services hopefully grow their content and accessibility (their business model certainly isn’t watertight yet) they could make downloading illegally utterly pointless.

Isn’t it fair to say that developing and promoting these smarter new ways of delivering content to the people who want it is better than sending a guy who doesn’t give a shit to try to catch a horse that’s already bolted?