The Queen's Speech and the digital economy

Start-ups will cheer, but our copyright system remains a mess.

As soon as the Queen began to list her government’s priorities on Wednesday it came as no surprise to hear that the Government’s top priority in the next parliamentary session is going to be delivering economic growth. When the Government comes to look at which industries that growth will come from, they will undoubtedly turn to the growing potential of digital businesses and the Internet.

The UK economy has the most Internet-dependent economy of all the industrialised nations. A study by the Boston Consulting Group found that the Internet is currently worth £120bn to the UK Economy, or 8 per cent of GDP, and is forecasted to rise to 12 per cent by 2016. The only other nation coming close to this high a percentage was South Korea with 7.3 per cent. We are world leaders in digital start-ups and SMEs across the UK are the job creators and wealth creators of the future.

The Government signalled in the Queen’s Speech its plans to introduce some really helpful measures for digital businesses. The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill being introduced to Parliament holds some real potential. We understand the Government intends this to be a wide ranging bill and will include key issues such as employment regulation, which is a huge concern for a small business needing to scale up rapidly. This will definitely be one to watch as there is a great opportunity for the Government to provide real benefits to startups and SMEs. Business owners face heavy administrative burdens and significant risks if they get it wrong, so allowing entrepreneurs to do what they do best and grow their businesses more easily will help push forward the growth the UK desperately needs.

Also included was a reference to the much-trailed Draft Communications Data Bill. This refers to plans to allow intelligence agencies to collect data on communications, including across the Internet, also known as Communications Capabilities Development Programme (CCDP). The bill is likely to come up against significant opposition, and not just from free speech advocates. We are yet to see the details of the plans but there will be key questions over who the financial burden of data retention will fall upon, and whether Government intends to break SSL, the system used for secure communications which underpins businesses and e-commerce sites.

However, absent from the speech was any reference to reforming Britain’s outdated copyright law. The purpose of intellectual property protection is to foster innovation, but many aspects of the current copyright regime are having the opposite effect for digital businesses. Innovative entrepreneurs are creating brilliant new models for distributing creative content, yet they have to spend too long navigating complicated licensing schemes rather than developing and growing their business.

Implementing recommendations from the Hargreaves Review, commissioned by the Prime Minister in 2010 and accepted by Government last year, will allow today’s technology start-ups to compete with their European and US rivals.

The Queen’s speech is designed to set the parliamentary agenda, but Government and Parliament are still free to respond legislatively to issues as they arise. We hope they will realise there has never a better time to reform copyright law than now. The recommendations are raring and ready to go and they will allow Britain’s vibrant digital businesses to be able to harness the web’s potential to contribute to deliver the vital economic growth the UK economy needs.

The Queen and Prince Philip at the state opening of Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images

Sara Kelly is the Policy and Development Manager for the Coalition for a Digital Economy.

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.