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The noble Lord said: My Lords, the draft order we are considering today, about Internet-related numbers, was published by the Government for extensive public consultation in March and April of this year. The consultation closed on 30th April and five responses were received, mainly from the industry. The industry was supportive of the decision to exclude Internet-related numbers from the definition of "number" in the Communications Act.
The order is to be made under Section 56 of the Communications Act 2003. Noble Lords will recall that the Communications Bill received Royal Assent on 17th July this year after more than a year of parliamentary scrutiny. The Communications Act puts in place a new regulatory framework covering electronic communications, broadcasting and media ownership under the regulation of the new Office of Communications, Ofcom. The new framework aims to create better, more flexible regulation, including more emphasis on self-regulation, and it gives Ofcom wide powers to address anti-competitive behaviour in the sectors that it covers. The scheduled date for Ofcom to launch formally is 29th December this year, when the second commencement order will effect the transfer of the functions of the existing five regulators in broadcasting and communications.
I shall now explain the purpose of this quite straightforward order. It concerns how Ofcom is to regulate telephone numbers. The effect of the order will be to take Internet-related numbers outside the scope of Ofcom's regulatory powers.
Oftel has regulated numbers in the UK since 1994 through operators' licences, but there has not been an explicit statutory basis for its regulation of numbering. In line with an earlier recommendation of the Trade and Industry Select Committee, the Government gave the new regulator for media and communications, Ofcom, explicit statutory authority in respect of numbering under the Communications Act 2003.
The Government have given Ofcom powers to regulate the allocation, transfer and use of telephone numbers. However, we do not consider that it would be appropriate for Ofcom to regulate certain types of numbers, for example, Internet-related numbers, which are currently regulated by industry bodies such as the world-wide Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and its British
Therefore Section 56(7) of the Communications Act gives the Secretary of State the power to exclude by order any description of numbers from the numbers to be treated as telephone numbers under the Bill. Such an exclusion order would have the effect of excluding certain types of numbers for the time being from the scope of Ofcom's regulatory powers. The Government have framed the legislation in this way so that Ofcom can regulate numbers such as ordinary telephone numbers where regulation is necessary, but not numbers such as Internet-related identifiersInternet addresses and domain namesthat the Government do not for the present consider it sensible or necessary for Ofcom to regulate.
The definition of "telephone number" is set out in Section 56(10) of the Communications Act. The House should note that the definition of "number" is extremely wide, extending to any data used to identify the destination, source or routing of any electronic communication, selecting a service available on an electronic communications network or identifying a communications provider for the purposes of transmitting an electronic communication. Thus, firstname.lastname@example.org is a "number" within the meaning of the Act.
The Government considered using a definition of telephone number in the Communications Act which excluded Internet-related identifiers. However, it proved difficult to achieve a satisfactory definition of the types of numbers we want to be regulated by Ofcom and the types we do not. As a result, it was decided to use secondary legislation to exempt Internet identifiers from the definition of "number". This approach also preserves flexibility for the future. Therefore this order excludes from the numbers to be treated as telephone numbers the following: Internet domain names, Internet addresses and identifiers based on domain names or Internet addresses.
We have not tried to define any of these terms because there is a wide degree of understanding about what they cover, whereas it has proved difficult to secure wide agreement on anything more specific.
Responding to the consultation I mentioned at the start of my speech, some of the operators asked about whether Ofcom plans to regulate intra-network routing codes within the BT network and the private network numbers. Officials at the DTI met with the operators to explain that Ofcom had no current plans to regulate such categories of numbers. If it was considered necessary to regulate these numbers at any point in the future, under the provisions of the Communications Act Ofcom would have to carry out a full public consultation on any extension of the areas of regulation in numbering, and any decision to extend these areas would be subject to a right of appeal. As I have said, such intervention would be subject to public
We shall shortly be making a commencement order to enable Ofcom to be fully up and running on 29th December. This order needs to be in force on the same date to distinguish the types of numbering Ofcom will be able to regulate from those which it will not.
Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his very clear explanation of the purpose of the order and for the helpful discussion that we had yesterday. Not only has this answered in advance many of the questions I might otherwise have had to ask, it has also shed considerable light on what he described as a quite straightforward orderwhich, indeed it isbut one which deals with what we both, as non-technical people, agree is a somewhat complex problem.
The complexity can be illustrated by the fact that in doing my own research for today, I discovered that in addition to my parliamentary e-mail address, I personally have not one but two domain names of my own which I hitherto thought were ordinary e-mail addresses. It seems that I am a dot.comor, in fact, two dot.coms. Never mind that the addresses are exclusively mine, I have to keep a written note of what they are in case I am asked for them.
It is right that Ofcom should not have the power to regulate Internet-related numbers and domain names, although I noted the caveat in the Minister's speech when he said that this would apply "for the time being". The practical point is that much of what happens on the Internet is regulated on a voluntary basis by the industry, and especially by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers based in the United States of America, as is so much of the Internet.
The United Kingdom associate, as the Minister has told us, is Nominet. If the Government or the regulator unreasonably tried to control that, it is quite likely that the whole name-allocating operation would be moved abroad and totally out of British jurisdiction.
I have some straightforward questions for the Minister. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and NumbersICANNwas set up in California to enable the United States Government to move the management of the Internet domain name system into the private sector. Is the Minister able to tell us quis custodiet ipsos custodesor, in this case, who manages the manager? If, as I suspect, it is the Federal Communications Commission, what input will Ofcom have with it if problems arise here. Indeed, what degree of supervision will be exercised, and by whom, over ICANN's British associate, Nominet, bearing in mind the Minister's subtle warning that the current arrangement, as I have already quoted, is "for the time being"?
Control of domain names is, to some extent, control of domainsand control of domains is a means of controlling Internet crime, which most certainly is not the responsibility of what really amounts to a self-regulating registry. Can the Minister give us a progress report on what the Government are doing to tackle Internet crime?
While Ofcom is currently to be divested of power to control domain names and Internet numbers, will the Minister please tell us what steps are being taken to protect children from unsuitable Internet content?
One of the problems experienced by potential owners of Internet sites is what is called cyber squattingnamely, the speculative registration of e-mail addresses and domain names by people who hope that the business with a genuine commercial interest in the name can be blackmailed into ransoming it back. It is probably right that those with technical skill and practical experience of the field are better placed to inhibit this type of modern piracy than what are essentially administrators. I say this with no disrespect to Ofcom and the regulator and his staff, who have more than enough to do taking over no fewer than five other regulatory bodies in just six weeks' time, as the Minister has told us, on 29th December.
A few days ago, we debated spam. Only yesterday, Microsoft announced that it was designing software to counter what are called pop-ups and pop-unders, those irritating adverts that appear, unasked for, on our screens when we are on the Internet.
The Internet, all forms of electronic communication and telephone technology are evolving with bewildering speed, almost from day to day. It is welcome that, in the field we are discussing today, the Government are prepared to relinquish direct control of a commercial activity via one of their agencies, and are prepared to let the industry, using its technical know-how and ability to react speedily to any situation, regulate itself.
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