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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There's something missing from our counter-terrorism debate

The policy reckoning that occured after the 2005 terrorist attacks did not happen after the one in 2016. 

“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department, says Wernher von Braun.” That satirical lyric about Nazi rocket scientists has come to mind more than few times watching various tech giants give testimony in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee, one of the underreported sub-plots of life at Westminster.

During their ongoing inquiry into hate crime in the United Kingdom, committee chair Yvette Cooper has found a staggering amount of hate speech being circulated freely on the largest and most profitable social media platform. Seperately, an ongoing investigation by the Times has uncovered how advertising revenue from Google and YouTube makes its way straight into the coffers of extremist groups, ranging from Islamist extremists to white supremacists and anti-Semites.

One of the many remarkable aspects of the inquiry has been the von Braunesque reaction by the movers and shakers at these tech companies. Once the ad revenue is handed out, who cares what it pays for? That’s not my department is the overwhelming message of much of the testimony.

The problem gains an added urgency now that the perpetrator of the Westminster attacks has been named as Khalid Masood, a British-born 52-year-old with a string of petty convictions across two decades from 1982 to 2002. He is of the same generation and profile as Thomas Mair, the white supremacist behind the last act of domestic terrorism on British shores, though Mair’s online radicalisation occurred on far-right websites, while Masood instead mimicked the methods of Isis attacks on the continent.  Despite that, both fitted many of the classic profiles of a “lone wolf” attack, although my colleague Amelia explains well why that term is increasingly outmoded.

One thing that some civil servants have observed is that it is relatively easy to get MPs to understand anti-terror measures based around either a form of electronic communication they use themselves – like text messaging or email, for instance – or a physical place which they might have in their own constituencies. But legislation has been sluggish in getting to grips with radicalisation online and slow at cutting off funding sources.

As I’ve written before, though there  are important differences between these two ideologies, the radicalisation journey is similar and tends to have the same staging posts: petty criminality, a drift from the fringes of respectable Internet sub-cultures to extremist websites, and finally violence.  We don’t yet know how closely Masood’s journey follows that pattern – but what is clear is that the policy rethink about British counter-terror after the July bombings in 2005 has yet to have an equivalent echo online. The success of that approach is shown in that these attacks are largely thwarted in the United Kingdom. But what needs to happen is a realisation that what happens when the rockets come down is very much the department of the world’s communication companies. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.