Digital Economy Bill [ Lords]

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 5:15 pm on 6th April 2010.

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Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Labour, Cardiff South and Penarth 5:15 pm, 6th April 2010

Mr. Hunt ended his speech by referring to the fast-moving and nimble industry, and he is right in that. In my short speech I want to refer specifically to internet-related and people-related issues, and to what is and what is not in this Bill, as good governance of the internet and the part that legislation and regulation should play have been of great interest to me in recent years.

Perhaps I should explain that the word "interest" does not mean that I have any personal interest in these issues, but that some of the costs of travel in putting the British Parliament and the UK in general at the cutting edge of internet governance have been met by Nominet, the not-for-profit company that is the UK's domain name registry, and by EURIM, the not-for-profit company that brings together parliamentarians and industry in large numbers to address the public and industry interests in information and communications technology issues and that works with other all-party groups for that purpose.

I welcome the framework for domain name registration offered in the Bill and I note specifically that an undertaking was given in the other place that the powers that are given to Government would be used only if necessary. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will reinforce that undertaking when he sums up the debate.

My interest arises simply because the internet is now enormously important to every single one of us, whether we are technically minded or not and whether or not we use the internet. I want our children and grandchildren to be safe users of the internet and I want people to feel safe, which is essential if we are to overcome the growing digital divide. If we are to bring that about, we need standards of behaviour on the internet, just as we do in the real world.

Such standards need to be underpinned by legislation, which is why I welcome the Bill, but I also want to warn against the drift into overreliance on legislation which has bedevilled us in how we have dealt with bad behaviour in the real world for decades, if not centuries. That is not a new idea. Gibbon, in "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", told us that laws rarely prevent what they forbid. As a legislator, it seems to me that legislation is precious and should be used sparingly and flexibly. The internet is so fast, so pervasive and so international that firms are often making profits now from products that they had not even started to design only a few months ago. That means that legislation will find it extremely difficult to keep pace. We, as legislators, need to adopt a different approach to deal with those issues.

The Bill meets my criteria, because it includes necessary elements but demonstrates potential for flexibility. That is important because of the wide-ranging nature of activity. Ofcom has been very successful in working with industry, in working in the interests of the public and of business, and in teasing out ways of making changes over time.

The "Digital Britain" final report, last July, was an enormously ambitious project that sought to bring together a huge number of strands-indeed, some nine or 10 Government Departments-on a range of issues which are almost as broad as the whole statute book and not just a single Bill. When I dealt with the Company Law Reform Bill-the biggest Bill in history-I thought that was complex, but the internet and the issues that are dealt with in "Digital Britain" are far more complex. In that regard, I am pleased that not all of that scope is being approached through legislation. We need flexibility and, I suggest to my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench, not so much consultation, but partnership. We need to bring together those who have a part in industry, users and those who are developing usage, to deal with complex issues in a speedy way that reflects change over time.

There are some enormously important matters of definition behind the Bill's content. There is the question of how its measures will affect small businesses, hotels, community centres and libraries-the sort of organisations that provide internet access. Those places are vital to getting people connected, to bridging the digital divide and to people who travel and move around a great deal. They are sometimes a lifeline for internet users who cannot afford their own dedicated connection and equipment. What does the legislation mean? There are a number of technical measures that public access organisations can take to protect themselves partially, but they are expensive, difficult to manage, restrictive and not difficult to circumvent. Many places may simply withdraw access rather than risk going to court or having to spend a great deal of time, effort and money on restricting or modifying their networks. That is an important point, because the greater the restrictions and the limits on flexibility, the more we build in and continue the dangers of the digital divide. A Minister in the other place sought to reassure people regarding these issues, but they still cause great worries. I ask the Government to address that area, not necessarily through over-meticulous regulation, but by working with industry, users and the sorts of organisations I have mentioned-they could use the internet crime reduction partnership, which I chair-to design solutions. Let us have co-operative solutions. Let us do this together and recognise that too much legislation, and definitions that are too narrow, might produce obstructions.

That different model has been tried and tested. We saw in the blocking of child abuse sites-I do not use the word "pornography", because we are talking about the abuse of children-the great danger of an impetus towards instant legislation. People get angry about that sort of issue and say that there ought to be a law against it. Why has there not been a law? It is partly because the activity itself is illegal and partly because people recognise the complexity of dealing with the internet in that regard. What we have seen in that area is a consensus that was achieved in partnership, going back to the very last days of the previous Conservative Government. It started with industry working with the Government; Parliament providing engagement across parties; children's charities showing enormous leadership; and, particularly-not necessarily immediately, but after time-the full engagement of the industry. The conclusion that has been drawn from reviewing that activity is that we achieved far more together, in a year or so, than we could possibly have achieved in 10 years of simply using a legislative and regulatory approach. That is a good lesson.

It might be comparatively simple to get unity of purpose against child abuse, as it is one of the simplest things to deal with, but agreement on issues of regulation and other aspects of internet use is far more complicated. However, that does not mean that we should not put our energies in that direction and seek to achieve an approach to regulation, legislation and good behaviour that depends on people working together co-operatively-in a consensus or coalition of the willing-against those who would damage industry, society and our infrastructure. We know that those people are out there and are acting in great numbers at the present time.

I support the Bill, but I call on the Government to reform the way that, going forward, its internal governance is undertaken. There is a tendency at the end of a piece of legislation to disband the Bill team and have new people writing the regulations. Instead, I hope that the Government, industry and users-wider civil society, as it might be called-will work together to ensure that we get something that matches the internet's speed of development and international reach.

In the internet's early days, there was a mythology that it would be characterised by absolute freedom, but that idea was as fragile and unrealistic as the talk of freedom of behaviour in the 1960s. An enormous amount of internet-related activity is based on trust and the quality of relationships. We need to interfere as little as possible with the energy, creativity and imagination that has driven the internet since its birth. My plea is for a light touch from the Government, and for careful work in the international dimension to achieve the necessary protections mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when he introduced the Bill today, without slowing the speed of growth and development, or the development of imagination and creativity.

I heard one critic complain this morning that all the detail would not be in the primary legislation but would be left for Ofcom in developing guidance. That is true, and legislators are of course fearful when that is the case, but it is also a great reassurance. It offers a new way of doing things if we can avoid the temptation to fall back on Whitehall's traditional approach of definition from the centre, and look instead to securing greater engagement from the creative individuals across industry and business who have such a great part to play.

Ofcom has demonstrated a capacity to work in that way. I hope that the Minister who sums up the debate will indicate that expectation of how Ofcom and Government Departments will use the powers available to them under the Bill. If that is the case, I will be happy to support the Bill going through into legislation.

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