The Puttnam Report

I’m getting bored downloading Communications Bill documents and searching them for references to the Internet. Lord Puttnam empanelled twelve peers and MPs for his parliamentary committee and took evidence from dozens of media and communications people ? many of whom were apparently Internet experts – and still managed to produce a critique of the bill that mentions the net only in the context of content regulation. This is not only a dreary reproduction of an entirely sterile half decade-long argument between ISPs, the police and Government but also a grim preview of the net’s potential marginalisation – reduced to a content threat.

The net is the number two medium in the UK. More people go online daily than read the national newspapers. Only hit TV shows have larger audiences than the top sites. The net is the only truly global medium, surely the most important new arrival in the last decade (and almost certainly the only survivor of the digital meltdown that wiped out ITV Digital, nearly wiped out the cable firms and might yet wipe out the 3G providers).

The net needs regulation in big socially and economically important issues like ownership, competition, universal access and the definition of public service provision as much as it needs content controls. Critically important issues – the BBC’s overbearing presence online, parlous broadband penetration – are being settled daily by default while non-issues – ISP’s legal liability for content, online publishers’ obsession with self-regulation – consume all of our energy. The bill and, sadly, the Puttnam critique, promise only more of the same – more hand-wringing about pornography, more sectoral commercial whinging.

A useful recognition of the net’s contribution to the communications economy? No. backlash hard-coded into legislation? Possibly. A missed opportunity to integrate the net and wider communications regulation? Definitely.

(Incidentally, it’s six years since I organised a meeting attended by ISPs, the media, anti-censorship campaigners and child protection charities to discuss Internet content regulation – the debate is still polarised and negative and kids are no better protected now than they were then)