Government & The Internet

Presentation on Government and the Internet given to Government 2010 Conference

The internet is important. But sometimes bad things happen on the net. So we need to regulate it, right?

Sometimes rules are needed, of course, and the net is subject to national laws just like everything else. From libel, through copyright and finance, everything on the net is by default subject to the whole of national law already.

So do we really need any more of it?

Of course, things are different on the net, but the principles of human society remain the same. People are people, by and large they want good things, they help people out, and they self-police bad behaviour. Ask Jan Moir.

Unfortunately in many cases, government regulation all too easily ends up being skewed towards vested interests rather than new innovative services or the public interest.

Let’s take a couple of examples, starting in Europe with the recent Telecoms Package.

On the one side of this debate, we had established telecoms companies, many previously arms of the state, arguing for the right to provide internet traffic in any shape or form, on the basis of customer service, such as providing specialist games connections, that would prioritise your games data.

On the other side, there were companies like Yahoo, Skype and Google, who were worried about their future ability for customers to access their services, and also worried about new, innovative services being blocked.

Skype have suffered in this way particularly on the mobile internet, and don’t want to see the same problems from fixed carriers.

There were also very sensible people arguing for strong national regulation to make sure these new abilities were not used in an anti-competitive manner.

Given that telecoms companies are getting interested in providing video and other services, this is an increasing worry. Consumer groups made the same points.

Guess who won. The telecoms lobby. Completely. Under the new rules, governments are not obliged to police the use of these new powers to discriminate internet traffic.

Let’s take another example: online music.

Now, anyone whose tried to set up an online music business will probably tell you that the problem is far less about competing infringing Peer-to-peer services, which excuse me for saying, are frankly not that user friendly.

No, their problem is music business refusing to set reasonable prices and forcing restrictive conditions on them.

Whether they insist on Digital Rights Management, or say user’s can’t search for artists on streaming services, or ask you to hand over a chunk of your share capital, music businesses have been engaging in anti-competitive practices.

For whatever reason, government hasn’t been hearing from companies that would benefit from licensing reform until ISPs started to get interested in providing music.

So we have ended up with a strong enforcement agenda, and a relatively weak reform agenda.

Clearly, intervention, as with copyright licensing, is needed. Governments have a job to do.

But the difficulty they face is that they are finding it difficult to locate the public interest, instead equating the public interest with jobs, and established industries.

It’s safe, It’s easy. It’s also extremely lazy.

And when it comes to protecting innovation, we have a very closed mind set. Intellectual innovation is identified by most politicians as synonymous with strong IP laws, despite a growing body of evidence against this.

In a sense, governments have misunderstood the information age at a fundamental level, thinking that people paying for information will be the greatest spur to development.

But actually, use of information is the greatest spur to development. Rigid IP laws will reduce innovation.

Government takes the benefits of the internet for granted. It is not asking how or why we got to this massive unleashing of democratic power, or what fundamentals make the internet such a powerful free market.

Somehow we need a radical reshaping of the debate, or we will reduce the innovative and social benefit of the internet, restriction by restriction, blocked service by blocked service.