Internet Regulation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:32 pm on 4th June 2008.

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Photo of John Robertson John Robertson PPS (Dr Kim Howells, Minister of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office 7:32 pm, 4th June 2008

I am pleased to have the chance to discuss internet content and internet service providers with my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, not least because I have been trying to secure this debate for several months. I know that, like me, many of my colleagues regularly receive correspondence from constituents who are worried about internet content, and I have been especially keen to discuss those matters following the Byron review, but on several occasions I have been told by the Table Office that there is no Department appropriate to field such a debate. The strategy of representatives of each Department that we tried to assign it to has been to hold up its hands in affront and deny any responsibility for the matter.

My worry is that that is an allegory of the current situation relating to responsibility for internet content, and that the excuse is, sadly, endemic. ISPs claim to be mere inanimate conduits; search engines plead their neutrality; Ofcom has intentionally been denied any remit for content; other UK Executive and regulatory bodies, including the police, have powers over only a tiny minority of websites; and the Internet Watch Foundation is limited in the subjects it monitors and by the international nature of the internet. As a result, the various initiatives that have been implemented are piecemeal and inadequate, and the internet stands out as an anomaly against similar media as a place where, essentially, anything goes. It is a paradox that the efforts of ISPs to deal with illegal content are a strong argument for regulating them, as we see that the tools they have are the most effective method of controlling material online.

Before outlining my case, I should state that, as joint-chairman of the all-party communications group, I am a fully fledged internet enthusiast. I welcome the fact that just under 60 per cent. of households in the UK now have broadband, although I am disappointed that my own city, Glasgow, has the lowest uptake.

Even in the space of a decade, the internet has revolutionised the way many people live, from accessing information to socialising. Across the world, it has been an empowering and democratising force. I do not doubt that freedom for the network is important to its continuing evolution and, in that respect, our approach to regulating the internet in the UK will set an important precedent.

However, because the internet has come so far, we need to regulate content. What was originally a network that was exclusively confined to communications for the American military establishment is now in the majority of homes across the country and in three quarters of households with children. Furthermore, there is an increasing blurring of the distinctions between the internet and the traditional media and means of accessing services. Two examples are that half of all internet users have watched video online, and that BBC iPlayer has a weekly audience of around 1.1 million.

In the light of those trends, the argument that the Government previously used to justify inaction—that there is a tradition of non-regulation of the internet—surely becomes untenable. Together with the benefits of the internet, there has been a range of tangible negative effects for the UK. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and Revenue and Customs have both attributed a vast increase in counterfeit medicines to websites selling illegal drugs. The BPI has calculated that around £160 million was lost by the music industry through illegal downloads in 2007, and NBC Universal estimates that online piracy costs film and TV businesses £129 million a year. Those are coupled with less tangible effects, for instance, the increased availability of extremist and hate-inciting literature, or of young people being exposed to pro-disorder and suicide websites.

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