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.

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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity