Lord Carter and the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport released the Digital Britain report nearly two weeks ago. Apart from a few brief lines on the BBC website the media coverage has been largely forgotten. Granted, major celebrities have passed away in the meantime, but a report that proposes a large increase in government power and a so-called “poll tax” on telephone line usage, among other blanket “reforms” should not leave the limelight so quickly.
Digital Britain is culmination of years of research on how the UK can be a more “competitive” digital economy. It is a tour de force for government researchers and planners. At 245 pages long (or three MB if downloaded online) the document lays out a number of proposals that would “encourage and increase the digital wellbeing of the UK”. Among the key points proposed are the following: universal access by 2012 funded by a tax levy, an increase in Ofcom’s power to thwart illegal internet usage by frequent monitoring of Internet Service Providers (ISPs), financial support for public service content partnerships, the funding of local and regional news programmes and the creation of a new classification system for video games.
Any specific one of these issues is a cause for concern in a public environment of increased government control and higher taxes. And there are other approaches. For example, a market solution to broadband coverage through commercial competition would be a far better solution then an additional tax to fund government intervention. However, what concerns me most about Digital Britain is the overall approach to its development.
In “The Road to Serfdom”, Hayek states that “The movement for planning owes its present strength largely to the fact that, while planning is in the main still at ambition, it unites all the single-minded idealists…The hopes they place in planning, however, are not the result of a comprehensive view of society, but rather of a very limited view.” Hayek goes on to say that the men most eager to plan society are the most dangerous ones to do so.
The US is the largest digital economy in the world. Originally, the Internet was created by the US Army, though similar plans were around in the private sector. Since its early development, the US digital economy has grown over time due to private entrepreneurship and commercial competition of content creators, ISPs, and infrastructure builders and not through planned government intervention. Digital Britain is a government report promoting a planned digital economy as fostered and controlled by the government. It is a great concern to leave the future of the UK’s digital economy to MPs and ministers and not to the businessmen and entrepreneurs of the digital economy. How else will the spread of the digital economy occur? Not by central planning and men who are too wrapped up in the government to see the totality of the digital society outside of Westminster.