Information Superhighway


The new communications networks will succeed or fail because of their content. People do not buy wires; they buy programmes, services and information.

It is all the more deplorable, therefore, that the Government has relegated content to the secondary status it is accorded in the DTI paper Building the Highways of the Future.

Labour, in contrast, will give infrastructure and content equal priority. The new networks must be a place where demanding consumers and creative suppliers meet. Our goal must be to ensure that consumers have access, as they decide and choose, to content of high quality and at affordable cost, supplied by a dynamic market and by efficient public services. Government can and must facilitate this aim.

Consumers are of course not only the recipients of information in the new networks; they are generators and exchangers of information as well. We believe Government should intervene as little as possible in content creation and regulation. We would seek to set a framework within which companies and consumers, public services and citizens, could exchange content as they chose.

This facilitating role from Government would require action in four areas: universal access, competitiveness, copyright law, and free speech.

It will also require a constant ability for the enabling regulatory framework we envisage to keep pace with the rapid advance of technology in this field. As technology changes, so must the regulatory response, in a flexible and sophisticated way. The overall goal of governmental policy, however, must remain the same: the empowerment of people as consumers and users of the new networks.


Labour wants everyone to share in the benefits of the information society. For consumers, this is partly achieved by ensuring the vision nationwide approach to infrastructure provision we have outlined above. It is also partly achieved by ensuring that effective competition drives down prices and over time makes the acquisition of equipment and the payment of on-line charges more affordable. But we acknowledge that there will always be those who cannot afford to link their own home into the communications networks, and we must ensure that such people do not become "information-poor" and sharply discriminated against as a result. This is why we set out in 10.2 below our proposals for ensuring that schools, hospitals, and other public service organisations are linked in to the networks.

It is important to ensure that access is available to those - including women and those from ethnic minority communities - who are often excluded from networking at present.

We also envisage a range of different public access points becoming available - and we would wish to explore the possibility of financing these through public/private partnerships.

In particular, private sector organisations might finance terminals or a particular service in return for the pulling-power that they might have for the provider of the facility.

The cornerstone of this public access network will be the public library: still a storehouse of books and knowledge, a school for life for everyone, but now in the twenty-first century also to be the hub of the new interactive networks. We believe it is imperative that anyone who cannot link themselves into the information society at home should be able to go into their public library -or perhaps in some areas their village hall - and do it there.

Some local authorities are already well advanced in this, and many are already choosing to make use of information technology in their libraries and public buildings.

But we will insist that the providers of the infrastructure automatically put a feed into every public library in the area they are covering.

We believe that as well as having access to screens and communications through the public library, individuals should be able to rent e-mail addresses there. This service is currently available through Cyberia, the Internet Cafe, and similar innovative organisations, but should be available - as cheaply as possible - to citizens throughout the country.

We would also wish to encourage network providers to develop schemes to make the use of their systems more affordable for the general public.

The idea of widespread access points for public information has already been tested with enormous success in Iowa, where the links provided to county, state and federal authorities have proved not only extremely popular but also very useful.

As well as the need for physical access to the networks, it is also important to facilitate psychological access. Many people are afraid of the technology and only a relatively small number have the ability at present to use it extensively.

We should be encouraging the providers to make access easy, through TV remote controls with which everyone is familiar, and by ensuring that information programmes are not dry but fun.

Touch-screen techniques and other easy-to-use tools will help to ensure that the new networks are available to everyone, and not daunting to a great majority of the population. It has taken years for many people to learn how to pre-set their video recorders; and this is hardly surprising, given the complexity of the operation on many machines. We do not wish to see the same problem developing with the use of new interactive technology.

Access for providers

We set out in the third and fourth sections above how we aim to ensure that there is open access to the networks for the providers of information and of services. This is particularly important, given the strength of British companies already in these fields.

Britain has some of the most enterprising, innovative and successful media companies in the world. They must be given access to consumers and new technologies to make the most of the new opportunities. The universal access for consumers and producers suggested here would extend the benefits of the information society, both by kick-starting the content creation that has held the cable revolution back and spreading that content's reach beyond the economically affluent in urban areas.

Until recently, the satellite and cable revolutions have not provided much domestically-based programme-making in Britain. A fairer competition environment for content provision will help to stimulate local programme-making; and there will be considerable first-mover advantages for countries that develop content earlier than their competitors.

Our approach to the regulation of media industries generally will be based on a number of clear principles: diversity of content, plurality of ownership, regional strength, and quality of programme-making. Avoiding dominance by any one provider, and ensuring that ownership of a gateway cannot be used to create bottlenecks, will help to secure those principles. We shall also wish to encourage broadcasters to provide local channels.

Britain's creative skills can be world-class. As the National Heritage Select Committee identified in its recent report on the British film industry, there are already concerns about future skill shortages in the media industries.

Labour will work with industry training bodies, the European Commission, TECs and local authorities to focus on more suitable training that combines skills for audio-visual production and computing and multi-media authoring. We support the recommendations of the Select Committee that film training should include training in computer and new technologies. Just as important, courses should include the development of the marketing and production skills that will bridge the gap between creativity and commercial success.


Protection of copyright will be essential to facilitate content provision on the new networks. As in other areas, the aim of copyright law is to deepen society's library of knowledge by rewarding content creators with exclusive rights.

We recognise that the extension of copyright to electronic networks - which we believe to be essential - may be controversial for some users of existing systems, particularly the Internet. However, without an effective copyright framework, content creation on the networks will be discouraged, penalising artists, researchers, companies and ultimately users.

There must therefore be a proper legal mechanism for securing copyright to electronic material, and charging for its use. This should not, of course, limit the use of the Internet as at present, allowing for full freedom of expression; copyright should run alongside such freedom, and should not inhibit it.

We are particularly concerned about the potential evasion of copyright in the transmission and subsequent copying of music across the new networks. The development of potential piracy stations like the "celestial jukebox" could pose a serious threat to the whole music industry in Britain.

We therefore propose that the definition of issuing copies in existing copyright law be specifically extended to include digital distribution through the new electronic networks.

As is the case with paper material, and the "fair use" rules that permit limited legal photocopying of copyrighted artifacts, so there must be some provision for a right to copy under similar terms across the electronic media. This would of course be particularly important for educational and scientific purposes.

Copyright enforcement will be no more watertight on the new networks than it is for compact discs or books today. Instead of perfect solutions, we need protection that is adequate and effective enough for content providers to feel safe putting their creative work onto the networks.

Complex legal and technical solutions will need to develop, and to adapt as technology changes.

Labour will therefore establish a small legal advisory panel to find these solutions. An urgent report on pre-emptive immediate changes to primary legislation will be requested from the panel, followed by a longer term watching brief to identify changes that might be required in the light of case law.

Copyright law must also match the global reach of the new technologies. We need greater copyright harmonisation than has so far been achieved by the Bern Convention or the Treaty of Rome or European directives.

The UK should take a leading role in enacting the necessary international agreements within the European Union and, together with the United States, on the international stage, particularly within the World Intellectual Property Organisation.

We believe that governments generally should foster a culture where intellectual property is seen to have fundamental social and economic value and where illicit copying is felt to be as serious a crime as other forms of robbery. Information-rich economies like the UK can only benefit from such a shift.

As one step towards this goal, we suggest that it might be possible to request company auditors (as happens to an extent in Italy) to look at the status of software systems in a company when carrying out the annual audit.

Freedom of speech

One of the great attractions of the new networks is that they allow freedom of speech. Already, organisations like Greennet and Poptel in the UK are using the Internet to gather information and communicate with supporters.

Labour welcomes this extension of freedom of speech and would be wary of any censorship that restricted it.

But freedom of expression carries with it special responsibilities. The right to free speech must be balanced by the right of others to be protected from harm. The United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recognizes that some restrictions on freedom of speech are permissible but stresses that these must be "necessary" and "provided in law".

As elsewhere, this means that restrictions must be for a defined legitimate purpose, and must not exceed that purpose.

Labour would limit governmental intervention to these defined legitimate purposes: action against incitement to racial hatred, action to protect minors, and action against criminal activity such as money laundering that would be illegal elsewhere.

The protection of children, from activities such as paedophilia rings, will be particularly important.

Labour welcomes the current policy of self-regulation by some network operators, such as in JANET and SuperJANET. Where statutory regulation is necessary, the public must have confidence in the openness and accountability of the regulator, as described in paragraph 4.5 above. And once network operators have demonstrated that it is possible to allow parents to have control over access to sensitive material by young children, we would extend the ITC's decision to exclude video-on-demand from watershed requirements to the new networks.

It is important that privacy is rigorously protected over the new networks, for both personal and commercial reasons. We do not accept the "clipper chip" argument developed in the United States for the authorities to be able to swoop down on any encrypted message at will and unscramble it.

The only power we would wish to give to the authorities, in order to pursue a defined legitimate anti-criminal purpose, would be to enable decryption to be demanded under judicial warrant (in the same way that a warrant is required in order to search someone's home).

Attempts to control the use of encryption technology are wrong in principle, unworkable in practice, and damaging to the long-term economic value of the information networks. There is no fundamental difference between an encrypted file and a locked safe. A safe may be effectively impregnable in that the effort taken to open it would destroy the contents. An encryption algorithm, similarly, may be effectively unbreakable.

Furthermore, the rate of change of technology and the ease with which ideas or computer software can be disseminated over the Internet and other networks make technical solutions unworkable. Adequate controls can be put in place based around current laws covering search and seizure and the disclosure of information. It is not necessary to criminalise a large section of the network-using public to control the activities of a very small minority of law-breakers.

In all other areas, privacy must be rigorously protected, particularly in the light of the potential for secondary, micro-marketing on the new networks. The Data Protection Act already applies to personal information held in relation to computerised services and providers should be aware of their responsibilities under the Act. We would wish to consult with the Registrar to ensure that the provisions of the Act provide adequate protection for new digital services.

As long as sources were only traced when specific legal permission for defined reasons had been given, and this process were openly monitored, we believe the arrangements set out above would provide the most appropriate balance between freedom of speech and freedom from harm.


Executive summary

Economic Opportunities

Getting the Infrastructure in Place


Ensuring Social Use


Summary of Proposals

Ensuring Social Use More

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