Could Britain Lead The Digital Revolution?

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Gordon Brown today laid out the government’s strategy to transform Britain into a leading digital power, but contradictory measures in the Digital Economy Bill could foil his plans

The Prime Minister also said Labour intends to invest £30 million in a new Institute of Web Science, to be jointly headed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, and web science expert Professor Nigel Shadbolt.

“This will help place the UK at the cutting edge of research on the semantic web and other emerging web and Internet technologies, and ensure that government is taking the right funding decisions to position the UK as a world leader,” said Brown. “And we will invite universities and private sector web developers and companies to join this collaborative project.”

In the autumn the government will also publish an online “inventory of all non-personal datasets held by departments and arms-length bodies” – what it describes as “a ‘domesday book’ for the 21st century”. The initiative will allow members of the public to access information on each set of data, including its size, source, format, content, timeliness, cost and quality, and embed this public data in their own websites. Brown said that there will be an expectation that departments will release each of these datasets, or account publicly for why they are not doing so.

Government needs to focus its strategy

While all these steps aim to position Britain as a global leader of digital innovation, there are several conflicting strategies that will continue to hold the government back. In particular, the government’s own Digital Economy Bill, which threatens to disconnect illegal file-sharers from the Internet, contradicts the ideal of universal Internet.

“The government cannot plan to deliver every service online, and simultaneously plan to disconnect families after allegations of minor copyright offences,” said Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group. “The only consistent and reasonable way forward is to drop clauses 11-18 of the Digital Economy Bill, that would allow thousands of families to be cut off the Internet.”

Another drawback is the lack of investment in computer science at universities, leaving a gaping hole where the UK’s technological expertise should be. “Lack of support and investment in university computer science now will mean a lack of knowledgeable computer science experts in the future,” said Sue Black, head of computer science at Westminster University.  “So when we are ready to take a lead in the global technology arena in 2015 we will suddenly realise that all the fundamental expertise we need is overseas. Oops.”

Politicians are going to have to do a lot more to prove that they are serious about digital innovation in the UK, but time could be running out for this government. Whether Gordon Brown’s vision of Britain as a digital leader is powerful enough to keep the Tories out at the next general election remains to me seen but, if nothing else, technology and the Internet have been brought to the forefront of British politics for the very first time – and that is a significant step towards a true digital economy.

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