Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340-347)




  340. The Bill Team are sitting here, so, having heard those exchanges, is there anything you would like to ask or are you more or less comfortable than you were half an hour ago?
  (Mr Duggan) The government policy of not wanting to regulate the Internet as set out is definitely what we intend and I think we are willing to talk to the industry and we have talked to the industry and we will continue to talk to the industry about how to best achieve that if there are flaws that they find in the draft Bill.

Lord McNally

  341. Chairman, just to take up Mr Lambert's point, there are those of us who fought for pre-legislative scrutiny work on the assumption that the man in Whitehall may not know best and this is your opportunity, not the day after the Bill becomes law.
  (Mr Lambert) That point is well taken and we do understand that. We have made suggestions in our submission about where we think there are faults and we take very much the view that this is not precise advice on what we feel is a better wording. We did not set out to redraft the Bill and I did not entirely understand that that was the expectation of the submission, but if you want us to make comments where we feel there are weaknesses, and I take the point that if perhaps the Committee and the officials drafting the Bill would like some advice on where we think you can word it better, we will go away and come back with some precise wording and try and help you.
  (Mr Susman) Could I make the point that in offering drafting suggestions, they also indicate what they want to achieve because there is an enormous difference between us being agreed on the policy and getting the wording right and between them actually wanting a different policy. Until we know what they want to achieve, we cannot tell what it is the drafting criticism is aimed at.

Lord Hussey of North Bradley

  342. I was interested by your concern that the Content Board might be considering issues of Internet content. Why are you particularly worried about Internet content? Why are you not suggesting that their judgments would be more valid if they covered the whole content area?
  (Mr Lambert) Only that our comment was really not that the Content Board should not have a right to look at content, and it certainly seems like a positive step to have that Content Board and we make no criticism that it is coming into force, as it were, but I think the issue really is that if the Bill says, "We are not going to try to regulate Internet content", as the Bill officers have said again here today, the Government's stated intention is not to do so, then a paragraph in the Bill which suggests that they will be looking at content of the Internet seems to be a disparity between the intention and the actual wording of the Bill. Again with that one, I do not think it is a terribly difficult job to redraft so that it is clear what their remit should be and how far it should go.

  Chairman: Would you have understood it better had the Bill, as it were, said, "The Government prefer not to regulate"? There is quite an important difference between preferring not to and not wishing to regulate. That is important and I think one of the invitations that you are getting is that if you can find ways of regulating content in such a way that the Government does not have to, you achieve something which broadcasting and even newspapers have not entirely managed and that, I think, is a really interesting invitation.

Lord Hussey of North Bradley

  343. I am still quite puzzled by how sensitive you are to the potential of the Internet and not so sensitive to the general area elsewhere. What is it about the Internet which means you are happy about that and, by implication, not happy about the judgment on the rest?
  (Mr Hampton) I think if we have a concern it is that given that at the moment we believe OFCOM has discretion to exercise powers over the Internet, which first of all we would like to change the definition so that it more matches government policy, but supposing it stays the same and, therefore, OFCOM did not exercise their discretion because they knew it was government policy not to regulate the Internet, and at the same time they had the Content Board looking at these issues and raising concerns, I think then that could be one of the vectors that starts causing regulatory creep, and that would be a concern. It is in that sort of way. As and when we are able to make sure that the Government's policy of not wishing to regulate the Internet has been solved, then I do not think that the concerns about the Content Board will be so substantial.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

  344. What about the European Union, as was suggested? If there are still problems with the Internet which emerge with a large number of rogue operators and the European Union actually did start to intervene, would you object to that? I understand obviously about the national problems, but it seems to me that if it was done on an international level in an area the size of the European Union, you would not object.
  (Mr Frank) From a practical point of view, it becomes very difficult to regulate certain aspects of the Internet, the content of sites, and we are still in early days with the Internet, so cross-border co-operation, law enforcement needs to be refined and moved forward and many of the rules become more efficient in a world where information moves much more quickly. We are not saying that if there are important social policy concerns, they should not be addressed really on the Internet, but I think the point is really a definitional one that we are talking about, that within the scope of this Bill the goal seems to be not to regulate at this point, and we are not saying that regulation should not be applicable, but in this Bill that is not one of the goals.

  345. That I understand and that is the local situation in the United Kingdom, but reading your answer, I am assuming that if there were a problem you would not object if it was practically possible on an international level, and you are not saying, like the 19 th Century industrialist would say, that any interference by anybody is a sin?
  (Mr Frank) Absolutely not.
  (Ms Thomson) I would just like to make a comment about the way consumers perceive content on the Internet and one of the things that we as the industry, which is not directly applicable, but one of the things that we as the industry are very passionate about is consumer ability to manage their experience and, therefore, we really need to empower consumers and put tools in consumers' hands which allow them to regulate the Internet safely for their families, essentially by controls. Other bodies in the industry are now looking at that and the tools that exist are extraordinarily important to the development state of our industry. I would hate you to think that the content is just flowing out to the consumers, but the industry is taking very strong steps and we are passionate, as family servers, about putting tools into consumers' hands to put more power with the individual consumer because we really have to make sure that the consumers themselves are empowered.

Lord McNally

  346. I just want to clarify with Mr Lambert that although we want witnesses to come up with specific ideas, we also want general opinions and we are not closing those down. There is also the point Mr Susman made about having suggestions which implement government policy. There is a stage in this Bill when some of us might be interested in suggestions on how to change government policy, so do not lose sight of that either! I would like to ask your opinion on a more general impact. One of the things that we are going to be looking at is cross-media ownership and the retention or the encouragement of diversity of ownership within the media landscape. I just wonder whether you see the new media contributing to diversity or whether there are dangers of further concentration of power? Where do you think the balance is? I know I am asking you to indulge in a bit of futurology, but what do you feel in your bones will the impact of the new media be on media diversity?
  (Ms Thomson) I think from my perspective, it is to do with people out there and how they want to receive that content information and how they want to interact, so it requires the industry to get much closer and it requires the servers to get much closer to what consumers want and to what their expectations may be. I think in the past we have been technology-driven and, therefore, have not picked up some of the trends that consumers are showing. I think as an independent provider, we are concerned where consumer choice starts to disappear perhaps because of a lot of competition in the communications sector, so from our perspective it is about trying to keep a broad amount of choice for consumers and in terms of the interactive industry, we actually start to bring into the game lots of different types of content where consumers may want a taste of the interactive environment and then go on to consume on different types of platforms. It is really important that we manage to expand that level of consumer choice because, without that choice, we will not be able to develop multiple services, some of which will become new applications. I personally do not think there is one type of application, but I think it is a broad diversity of services that consumers will choose to consume across a number of different devices. At the moment we are in danger of consolidation and reducing the amount of consumer choice and I think that may well happen on the communications side.

  347. On that, for example, is it now 70 per cent of news that people actually get from television? Do you see in ten years' time that most people will see the new media as the major source of their news? Members of Parliament now all have their websites. Is that going to be the main contribution of political communication? Do you see trends underway which are going to change the nature of media diversity?
  (Ms Thomson) I think consumers have moved to where it is easiest, where it is the most efficient way as we all become less time-rich and consumers will tend to receive media in different types of ways. I think they use the Internet to get their immediate, quick update on news, they use it to research things, but then they will choose to sit and watch a television programme or to get a newspaper. It is the mix that is changing. I do not think necessarily that any particular delivery will become dominant, but I think consumers are becoming extraordinarily sophisticated in how they put the whole package together and that is very different for individual consumers in different families. I do not think that one will substitute for another, but I think it is the mix which is changing with multiple devices, maybe the way people use mobile phones and text alerts, et cetera. That does not mean that they do not buy a newspaper or they do not watch the news anymore, but they just change some of those acquisitions at different times of day, for example.

  (Mr Lambert) You look at the situation now and you or I do not have to be a futurologist to see that in terms of ownership, there is a huge diversity of ownership out on the Internet. It is not concentrated in any particular area or owned by any one company. I think one cannot predict exactly where people will get their media from in the future, it is very hard to predict, and companies like Microsoft and America On-Line spend a lot of time trying to predict that obviously and see where the business opportunities are going to be, but it is exceptionally hard to predict which devices will be the most popular and what the most predominant means of getting it will be, and we are in this game, but what one can say is that it is very likely that the ownership and the diversity will continue to be exceptionally diverse and that the barriers to entry for people wishing to get into that market and content are different from many of the traditional forms of media that we have experienced throughout history.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 9 July 2002