John Whittingdale, Conservative, Maldon


It is a pleasure to welcome the Digital Economy Bill, not least because it still has my name on the front of it. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) and I can claim a degree of joint paternity on this particular measure.

 

The Bill is something of a Christmas tree and contains a number of different measures within it. Let me speak first about the two major provisions, which both relate to connectivity. The reform of the electronic communications code has been something that communications providers have been urging for a considerable time. Indeed, it was part of the deal struck with mobile phone providers by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) in return for their guarantee of extending coverage. It was attempted to be introduced in the Enterprise Bill in the last Parliament. It has been around for a long time.

I found out from my own constituency about 18 months ago that Vodafone had a problem with one of its transmitters, which led to a large number of my constituents losing the service. That was impossible to put right for something like eight weeks as a result of Vodafone being unable to access the transmitter.

 
Jim Cunningham, Labour, Coventry South

The right hon. Gentleman will know that I raised the issue of BT with him on a number of occasions, particularly with respect to small businesses in Coventry that are struggling with the services they get, along with the general public as a whole. Does he agree with me that it is about time that somebody had a good look at doing something about BT?

 
John Whittingdale, Conservative, Maldon


I do agree. I shall say a few more words about it in a few moments, but I generally agree with the hon. Gentleman. As for the code reforms, these will make it easier for communications providers to maintain and repair their equipment. This is now an essential part of ensuring that we have an adequate infrastructure.

 
Chris Bryant, Labour, Rhondda

 

The right hon. Gentleman says that it will make it easier for providers to repair, but it will not. It makes it easier for them to put new masts up, but it does not make it easier to repair them, particularly when the groupings of “whips”, as they are called—they enable different mobile companies to use similar masts—are expressly excluded. Does the right hon. Gentleman think it would be advantageous to change the Bill in order to allow them to be included?

 
John Whittingdale, Conservative, Maldon


I believe that access to wholesale infrastructure providers’ masts is regulated by Ofcom in any case. We were advised that this was not a significant problem, although we looked at it quite closely at the time. We decided that it was not necessary to extend the provisions to cover wholesale infrastructure providers.

One thing I would say to Ministers is that alongside the reform of electronic communications codes, there have been some welcome changes to planning laws, which will enable higher masts. As we move into the next generation of 5G services, a huge number of very small transmitters are going to be required, which might need to be attached to lamp posts in cities, for example. We do not want to need individual planning applications for every single one. Given that 5G is coming down the track fast, we might need to look at planning laws again. I leave that issue with the Minister.

Provisions on the universal service obligation are also a major step forward. Whether or not the USO is a legal necessity remains to be seen, but it is certainly sensible to put the provisions in the Bill. BT is already saying that it can deliver it without a legal requirement, but this should certainly spur it on in its efforts to demonstrate that that is possible. The hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) raised his concerns about the BT. Now is not the occasion to rehearse all the arguments for a digital communications review. Ofcom has, I think rightly, put forward proposals to make a clearer separation between Openreach and BT Retail, but there is still some concern that those proposals do not go far enough. It will be necessary for BT to make it absolutely clear that there is full separation and a level playing field. I say to Ministers that they will want to look at that carefully. If it is not working sufficiently, it will need to be revisited.

Ofcom is obviously playing a key role throughout this process. One measure we thought about for a long time was Ofcom’s request for changes to its appeals procedure. BT has strongly opposed that, but Ofcom believes it to be necessary. One reason why it is necessary is that it has become apparent in recent years that almost every single decision taken by Ofcom is promptly challenged in the courts. Ofcom is not determining these matters; they are being determined by the judicial process that is then triggered by the communications provider. That is not how it was supposed to work, and it has resulted in lengthy delays in putting through some quite important measures. On balance, the change to the nature of the appeals process—the hurdle that has to be met to allow a judicial challenge—is a sensible one. This has become apparent simply because of the number and extent of the judicial challenges that have occurred over the last few years.

Let me say a few words about one or two other measures in the Bill. Copyright is one of them. I am delighted that the Bill equalises the penalties for online and offline copyright infringement. I have brought with me a copy of the Select Committee’s report “Supporting the Creative Economy”, published in September 2013. One of its key recommendations was that the penalties should be equalised, and that it should be made clear that infringement of copyright online was as serious as infringement offline. That will send a clear message, but more still needs to be done.

As my right hon. Friends will know, the Conservative party manifesto stated that we would put pressure on search engines to try to prevent illegal sites from coming up at the top of a search. I know that round-table discussions have been taking place for a considerable time, but it is a matter of great concern that no significant progress has yet been made. In the most recent attempt to find out whether or not there had been an improvement, a Google search was made for “Ed Sheeran Photograph download”, with “Photograph” being one of Ed Sheeran’s most recent songs. Only one of the top 10 listings involved a legal site, and the legal site was YouTube, which, of course, is owned by Google.

 

Dr Rupa Huq, Labour, Ealing Central and Acton


I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is much missed by Members on both sides of the House as we debate this Bill. He said that Ed Sheeran’s song was available on illegal platforms. Does he agree that technology companies,  and platforms such as Google and YouTube, should be compelled to list only legal sites? At present the pirates are sometimes listed higher up than legal sites, and our British musicians who contribute, I believe, £4 billion annually to the economy are losing out as a consequence.

 
John Whittingdale, Conservative, Maldon


I think it would be unrealistic to expect Google to establish whether every single site was legal or illegal. What it can do is react when illegal sites are brought to its attention. It does de-list, but new sites then appear immediately. There have been a vast number of complaints from rights owners about particular sites, but they should tweak their algorithms so that those sites no longer appear at the top of the search listings. Measures of that kind have been under discussion for months and months, but the problem still exists.

I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that there may well be a case for including a legal provision encouraging providers to establish a voluntary code. As she may remember, the Digital Economy Act 2010 contained measures to deal with illegal downloads. That led the industry to reach an agreement with the internet service providers, which made it unnecessary ever to use the law. When it comes to incentives of that kind there may well be a case for legislation, because we cannot allow Google and other search providers to go on allowing people access to illegal sites.

Another matter relating to copyright, which has already been raised, is the repeal of section 73 of the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act 1988, which exempts the cable companies from having to pay copyright licence fees. The original justification for the exemption was that it would encourage the roll-out of cable, and it has largely been fulfilled. However, the law has been abused, particularly by something called TVCatchup which has used it to steal copyright material and make it available without paying any licence fee. The repeal is, I think, absolutely right, although it leaves a question about the relationship between the cable companies—particularly Virgin—and the public service broadcasters. I hope that that can be settled by discussion between them, but Ofcom may still need a back-up role in connection with the must-carry provisions.

The other big issue covered by the Bill is pornography—which, again, has already been mentioned—and age verification. The Bill does not specify how age can be verified, and I must say that I am not entirely sure how the providers will do that. It will not be sufficient to include the question “Are you 18?”, along with a box to be ticked. On the other hand, requiring the user to submit, for instance, a credit card number potentially raises big issues relating to privacy. We must bear it in mind that the content that is being accessed is perfectly legal. Of course it is right for children to be prevented from accessing it, because that can be harmful, but it is legal content for adults, which is why I think the Bill is right not to go as far as blocking access to websites that are providing legal content. However, there are still big questions to be asked, and I am sure that they will be explored in Committee.

I agree with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) that the Bill should have contained cyber-security measures, and perhaps I should take some responsibility for that. Cyber-security is one of the great challenges facing our country, and I know that Ministers take it very seriously. At present, telecoms  companies are required to report a cyber-attack—which TalkTalk had to do not so long ago—but that requirement is restricted to telecoms companies. The truth is that every company is being subjected to cyber-attack, and I think that in the event of a significant breach resulting in the loss of data affecting large numbers of people, companies should make it public and tell their consumers. That is not currently within the law, and we may need to consider it again.

Generally, however, I think that the Bill contains a number of very important provisions which will hasten our progress towards the establishment of a fully digital economy.