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Digital Britain: A tax, a quango and ISP snooping

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Digital Britain Did anyone expect more from Stephen Carter CBE? The former Ofcom boss and No.10 strategy chief (sic) has spent his career moving between the world of advertising and public relations, quangos and party. So it's no surprise that the "vision thing" involves a tax, a quango and a burden by private parties to snoop on the public. It's an administrator's answer.

There's a lot more in Carter's sprawling Digital Britain review, which was published in "preview" form today, but those are the three primary recommendations that affect media and creative businesses, and how we pay for and use stuff we like on the internet - copyright material.

First things first. The purpose of the new ISP tax, according to the review, is "to fund... a new approach to civil enforcement of copyright". Note the emphasis on enforcement. The purpose of this, Carter suggests, is to "cover the need for innovative legitimate services to meet consumer demand, and education and information".

There's no explanation as to why the private sector can't come up with innovative legitimate services by itself. We know it can - and one such game-changing service which legalised P2P file sharing was weeks away from launch before being scuppered by two major record labels last week. But perhaps we now have an an explanation for why Virgin Music Unlimited didn't make it to market - it would jeopardise the education and information programs some in the music business see as of paramount importance.

But without a sanction to back them up - Three Strikes has gone - the nastygrams will pile up on our doormats like so much junk mail. Eventually these will need their own recycling container - and perhaps that necessitates another quango to tell us how to dispose of junk mail created by quangos. But we're getting a little ahead of ourselves, here.

Secondly, there's the inevitable NuLab quango that's required to administer and dole out the tax. The purpose of this new "Rights Agency" is even more vague. The primary role of the tax is to fund the Rights Agency - and the primary role of the Agency is to spend the tax. This is a policy tautology if there ever was one.

In the review's words, the purpose of the quango is:

To bring industry together to agree how to provide incentives for legal use of copyright material; work together to prevent unlawful use by consumers which infringes civil copyright law; and enable technical copyright-support solutions that work for both consumers and content creators.

Again, note the emphasis on technical countermeasures - advocating technical solutions to prevent certain kinds of behaviour. Now contrast this with the Virgin service: where technology was used to encourage certain kinds of behaviour - listening to and exchanging music. And again, note the complete lack of support for the creators, for whom copyright was created in the first place.

This isn't a broadband tax that compensates artists and garage entrepreneurs, but a broadband tax that compensates the quango that administers the broadband tax.

Finally there's the new obligation on ISPs to snoop on their customers.

"We also intend to require ISPs to collect anonymised information on serious repeat infringers (derived from their notification activities), to be made available to rights-holders together with personal details on receipt of a court order," the review states.

Again, as with most NuLab "solutions", this imposes a burden on one party (here, the ISPs) to spy on the public with no benefit to the public. There isn't even the fig-leaf of "national security", "public safety" or health. This increases the costs enormously to ISPs, and yet doesn't change the balance of enforcement at all - industry groups must still fund their own litigation.

So in summary, Carter has proposed a new tax, a new quango, and lots of administrative burdens designed to change behaviour. Not a word about new services which capture value from our existing behaviour, or return these to creators and investors in talent. It sees the world primarily as an administrative challenge. For the modern politician, "the vision thing" consists merely of aligning the bureaucracy with a topical issue. Job done.

The Carter Review also represents a short-term victory but a long-term catastrophe for the British music business, which has succeeded in putting enforcement and behaviour-modification at the heart of the "strategy". But in doing so, it's failed to convince Government it has the creative business know-how to arrest its own decline. ®

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