17.04.12 | Richard Mollett
By the time this article appears at the London Book Fair, we may be excitedly reading the government’s new Communications Green Paper. Or not. Ministers are extremely cagey about when it is going to emerge, or indeed what it is likely to say. And given the reports of the heated debates in Whitehall about its contents, we may have some time yet to wait.
But what has a policy review of regulation and infrastructure in telecommunications got to do with books and publishing? Potentially, a great deal. The Communications Green Paper is also being seen as a potential vehicle for government to bring some much-needed responsibility to the activities of internet intermediaries who are the oil in the gears of the digital economy.
The digital marketplace in the UK is enormous. Our e-economy is one of the biggest in the G20 and British consumers have taken to shopping online like ducks to water. According to the Boston Consulting group, the online economy is going to grow at an annual rate of 11%.
And yet, for all this sophistication, there is something wrong with the picture.
When economists analyse levels of development and sophistication in international markets, the key parameters are the strength of rule-of-law and the absence of fraud. Those countries which score low on the transparency index tend to be given a wide berth by investors and shoppers alike.
But here’s the funny thing. Apply those same criteria to the outwardly well advanced UK internet economy and you get a scary picture. The e-commerce world tolerates illegality to a degree which would be unthinkable in the physical world. Take online copyright infringement. Search engines still openly display results for blatantly infringing sites, internet service providers refuse to take action against infringing sites, and some who want no part in helping their own subscribers access legal services. Efforts to bring reform and legality to this world are shouted down and derided by the self-anointed champions of freedom of expression in the blogosphere and think-tanks (whose provenance and funding ironically lacks the transparency they noisily demand of everyone else).
It is time for the government to shout back. The Communications Green Paper is a golden opportunity for ministers to give a clear commitment to the need to uphold rights and the law in the digital world. The omens are very good. For some months, Department for Culture, Media & Sport ministers have been working with rights-holders and other e-economy stakeholders to develop voluntary solutions to drive the legal markets for content. These conversations have borne some fruit, but progress is painfully slow. A Green Paper which committed government to statutory action would give a useful fillip to negotiation and serve as a timely reminder to those who want to keep the digital economy in a state of lawless infancy that it is time for some maturity.
E-book sales and digital licensing are going to be the principal growth drivers in our sector, alongside a continued solid performance in physical publishing. But the full potential of this market will only be realised if new products and services can thrive and not see their development stunted by the long shadow of online copyright infringement.