Can the digital bill transform the UK?

This week, digital industries minister Ed Vaizey introduced the government’s long-awaited digital economy bill into parliament, setting out proposals with a bold ambition to help the UK become “a place where technology ceaselessly transforms the economy, society and government”.

Can the legislation, introduced into parliament and set for the statute books by next spring, really help achieve such lofty ambitions? Beyond the hype, how genuinely transformative is what’s proposed? And how have digital experts and consumer groups reacted so far?

The introduction of the digital economy bill followed the government’s ‘digital strategy’ consultation at the back end of 2015. The eight-week consultation drew just under 300 “broadly positive” responses, especially from local authorities and front-line service providers.

May’s Queen’s Speech saw Her Majesty announce the key headline-grabbing proposals in the bill.

These include the legal right to a fast broadband connection, with a minimum speed of 10Mbps “guaranteed” by imposing a ‘universal service obligation’ on broadband providers. The bill does this by creating an automatic right to compensation when broadband services go down.

Which, the consumer organisation, has welcomed the broadband plan and says it’s important that the measures on speed and compensation come into force quickly. It has also welcomed the bill’s plan to make switching providers easier.

TalkTalk, the UK’s third-biggest broadband provider, welcomes easier switching for “an easier process, helping drive competition and putting power back in the hands of customers”.

Rural groups, representing people on the thin end of so much UK broadband provision, have welcomed the broadband plan. The Countryside Alliance says the bill should “secure the future of broadband in rural areas”.

Beyond broadband, the bill contains important proposals on bulk data sharing, particularly between government departments.

In its consultation response, the independent Information Commissioner’s Office said “the public are concerned about who their data is shared with”, adding that “even apparently well-meaning sharing of data such as GP patient records for research purposes can arouse strong opinions.”

The Open Rights Group, which campaigns against infringements from the state and businesses, says the government needs to make a better case for data sharing. “It is misguided to think that social problems can be easily solved simply by making more data available to its departments, says ORG. “We need clarification about how safeguards to protect personal information, for example data about births and marriages, will be enforced.”

Law change in this area can’t be separated from the UK’s decision on Brexit. The EU’s ‘general data protection regulation’ (GDPR) came into force in May, strengthening individual data protection, and the UK has up to two years to put its own country-specific version into place.

With the UK leaving the EU, stricter new rules could well in future apply to the kinds of data that companies will be able store about EU citizens outside of the EU — ie in the UK.

Also on the privacy front, separate ‘investigative powers’ legislation has been making its way through parliament, giving cause for concern among privacy groups for imposing a requirement on internet service providers to collect and retain customer information for a year.

That legislation was dubbed a ‘snooper’s charter’ by tech industry groups back in November, and despite modifications it is still regarded by many as a danger to privacy.

Questions about the impact of digital on individual privacy remain, then. None other than worldwide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee last month called for a reinvention of the web after witnessing the increasing control by governments of big parts of the web, and increasing surveillance, with more personal data than ever held by major companies like Facebook and LinkedIn.

After its inclusion in the 2015 Conservative election manifesto, the bill also proposes a new requirement on porn sites to introduce age verification for content access — though experts have questioned how effective or policeable the new law can be in restricting under-18 access to porn.

The digital economy bill arrives at what could not be a more turbulent time. Political upheaval could yet scupper the legislation.

Transformation is happening through the digital disruption happening across our daily lives, and much is beyond the remit or reach of the state. But, where the state does have a role, particularly on data privacy, the government will need to do more to convince consumers that its legislation offers the protection they seek.

Video: Ed Vaizey talks to DigitalAgenda about the government’s digital strategy.