Rethinking Consumers in the Digital Age and Their Role in Shaping Policy, Regulation and Practice

A personal response to Communications Consumer Panel consultation of 25 April 2019

Bill Dutton

12 May 2019

I was a former member and Chair of the Advisory Committee for England, and have followed the Consumer Forum for Communications (CFC) for years. Having returned from working in the US for four years, I’ve also attended the last several meetings of the CFC as an unaffiliated individual. My major involvement in communication has been as an academic, involved in teaching and research on the social implications of the Internet and related media, communication and information technologies. 

Image Courtesy of Arthur Berger

I am pleased to learn of Ofcom’s decision to increase support for the Communication Consumer Panel (CCP), particularly in light of diminished support for the Consumer Forum for Communications (CFC). I have been impressed with the breadth of expertise and exceptional commitment of members of both organizations. However, I have comments on how the work of the CCP might be improved in the coming years.

Let me preface this by noting that the various schemes for organizing committees and individuals outlined in the consultation document on ‘strengthening the consumer voice in the communications sector’ appear to be wedded to a previous era of communication in which there were clear demarcations between the telecommunications industry and its consumers. This distinction is less meaningful today as the general public acts in a variety of roles, such as in producing, providing, sharing, using content, and more—and not just as consumers. 

The mission of the CCP recognizes this in part when saying the body is designed “to protect and promote the interests of consumers, citizens and small businesses in the communications sector by giving advice to Ofcom, the EU, Government, industry and others.” For example, people are increasingly talking about ‘digital citizens’ and using other broad terms that go beyond ‘consumer’. Clearly, the interests of consumers are a huge aspect of the public interest, but serving the public interest in communication is no longer limited to meeting the needs of consumers. And the regulation of communication is increasingly tied to multiple agencies and public officials. Is there a way to move away from this overly simplistic and dated dichotomy between industry and consumer, while also broadening the scope of our definitions of communication? I have a suggestion. 

Instead of creating an ‘industry forum’ and/or creating ‘focused, direct engagement with consumers’, why not create a truly broad communication forum, open to all actors in the design, production, and use of media, communication and information technologies and services, from the post and phones to the Internet of Things? There are tools available today for organizing collective intelligence across the nations of the UK on any topics that actors in this increasingly complex ecology wish to address. If well moderated from the outset, with clear rules of order, such as not posting anonymous comments, and supported by Ofcom, then there is no reason not to have it open to everyone interested in how communication can better serve the public interest. 

An open communication forum – not simply a blog or website – would enable direct involvement with the entire ecology of actors, surface issues before they become problems, and create a source of insights for the CCP that it would never otherwise be able to have at its service. As a forum of Ofcom, this would have the ability to attract input from key actors, and be able to translate what is learned into meaningful discussions at Ofcom and other appropriate agencies with the potential for effecting policy and practice. Given the growing number of industries, companies, SMEs, consumers, and other individuals playing multiple roles in our new communication ecology, why would you not want to exploit new communication technologies to tap the wisdom of civil society to identify and discuss contemporary communication issues in the public interest? 

An open communication forum would not replace the various advisory committees of Ofcom, but complement and inform all of them, and also the officers of the regulator and related agencies and ministries involved with communication, broadly defined. It is possible that state of the practice, off-the-shelf software could be purposed for this role. However, an open forum would need the engagement and leadership of the CCP to enable a national forum for communication in the public interest to thrive. 

Inspiring a Startup Mentality in Legacy IT Organizations – FCC CIO at the OII on 19 June, 4-5pm

Modernizing and Inspiring a “Startup Mentality” in Legacy Information Technology Organizations

Speakers: David A. Bray, Oxford Martin Associate and CIO of the U.S. FCC, Yorick Wilks, and Greg Taylor

19 June 2014 from 4-5 pm

OII Seminar Room, 1 St Giles’, Oxford

By some estimates, 70% of IT organization budgets are spent on maintaining legacy systems. These costs delays needed transitions to newer technologies. Moreover, this cost estimate only captures those legacy processes automated by IT; several paper-based, manual processes exist and result in additional hidden, human-intensive costs that could benefit from modern IT automation.

This interactive discussion will discuss the opportunities and challenges with inspiring a “startup mentality” in legacy information technology organizations. Dr. David Bray, will discuss his own experiences with inspiring a “startup mentality” in legacy IT organizations as well as future directions for legacy organizations confronted with modernization requirements. The discussion will be chaired by OII’s Dr. Greg Taylor, and Yorick Wilks, an OII Research Associate, and Professor of Artificial Intelligence in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Sheffield, will offer his comments and responses to David’s ideas before opening the discussion to participation from the audience.

David A. Bray at OII
David A. Bray at OII

Information about the speakers:

David A. Bray: http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/cybersecurity/people/575

Yorick Wilks: http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/people/?id=31

Greg Taylor: http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/people/?id=166

Cities and the Internet: New Perspectives

I’ve certainly been involved in research on the role of new information and communication technologies in shaping local and urban communities, such as with my work on Wired Cities from the late-1970s, when interactive cable communication was expected to support local and interactive communication in ways that would support community. Later I was involved with research on Santa Monica, California’s first electronic city hall, the Public Electronic Network (PEN), and I’ve followed work on information technology and communities since. However, in current discussions of future cities and superfast broadband and cities, I don’t have a clear sense of the dominant perspectives on the societal implications of new technologies. Are they similar to before, but with new technologies, or is there a different perspective on the role of new technology in communities?

I’d welcome tips on where to look, recent work, etc.

Selected Responses to Jeremy Hunt’s Open Letter

I worked with several colleagues at the OII (Victoria Nash, Monica Bulger, and Alissa Cooper) to pen responses to Jeremy Hunt’s Open Letter, requesting feedback of relevance to the new communications bill. They were submitted under my name as director of the OII, but also as a Co-Principal Investigator of the ESRC Seminar Series, entitled ‘Digital Policy’. In fact, all of these responses were shaped to some degree by discussions that took place at the OII Forum, entitled ‘Digital Policy Issues of the New Communications Bill’, held at the OII on 24 June 2011. A summary of that forum will be distributed in due course. In the meantime, these responses provide some sense of what my colleagues and I took away from the forum.

Question 1

What could a healthier communications market look like? How can the right balance be achieved between investment, competition and services in a changing technological environment?

Many of the questions in this review focus on aspects of competition and industrial policy, however it is our view that for the economic benefits of the Internet to be maximised, attention must also be devoted to closing the digital divide. Efforts such as Race Online 2012 demonstrate that the UK government realizes the significance of access to the Internet in supporting efforts to erase the digital divide, increase participation and enhance digital media literacy. Yet less than 30 percent of adults in the UK report receiving training in media literacy, even though training could promote participation among those with little to no experience (Ofcom, 2011; Livingstone & Wang, 2011). Our view is that access must be paired with understanding of options and risks to promote a healthier communications market.  Based on our 2011 OxIS survey findings, 73 percent of individuals in the UK use the Internet, leaving more than a quarter of the population off the Internet.  Efforts to increase Internet use among Britons has critical significance for 21st century economic and civic participation, but need adequate resources to promote understanding of the associated opportunities and risks.

For earlier OxIS figures see:

Dutton, W. H., Helsper, H. J., and Gerber, M. M. (2009), The Internet in Britain. Oxford: Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford.

Livingstone, S. & Wang, Y. (20110) Media Literacy and the Communications Act. London: LSE.

Ofcom (2011b). UK adults’ media literacy. London: Ofcom.

Question 3

Is regulatory convergence across different platforms desirable and, if so, what are the potential issues to implementation?

This question was discussed at a recent policy forum convened by the Oxford Internet Institute, in which field-leading academics with media, communications and regulatory expertise were asked to consider the proposed Review of the Communications Act. This forum served to reinforce our view that it would be a significant mistake to seek regulatory convergence across platforms if this means imposing a model of broadcast regulation on the Internet. It is often assumed that the Internet is a modern era ‘Wild West’, lawless and unregulated. In fact, the opposite is true – there is already extensive regulation of Internet service provision, content and activities. We would argue that traditional regulatory models for broadcasting, common carriers (such as post or telecommunications) and the press cannot be imposed wholesale on the Internet without serious risks to its vitality and its contribution to the UK economy as well as potential chilling effects of speech. Further analysis of this point can be found in: Dutton, W. H. (2010b), ‘Aiming at Copyright Infringers and Hitting the Digital Economy’, Prometheus, Vol. 28, No. 4, pp. 385-388, December 2010. Available at SSRN:http://ssrn.com/abstract=1778422

Question 13

Where has self- and co-regulation worked successfully and what can be learnt from specific approaches? Where specific approaches haven’t worked, how can the framework of content regulation be made sufficiently coherent and not create barriers to growth, but at the same time protect citizens and enable consumer confidence?

Many different regulatory models have been applied to various aspects of the Internet. Mobile operators in the UK voluntarily adopted industry codes of conduct to limit Internet access to adult content to minors, and to limit the use of location-aware services. Similarly the UK-licensed Internet gambling industry has proved that age verification (at least for the 18 threshold) is possible, and further has been widely recognised to have implemented this so successfully that even the child protection lobby have registered their satisfaction with this system. The UK model for control of illegal content, such as child pornography and hate speech, could undoubtedly benefit from more transparency and judicial oversight, but has broadly proved an effective way to limit the distribution of such material. Such measures are almost all co-regulatory – individual businesses and industry bodies signing up to common codes of conduct or unofficial norms, with the backing (or threat) of legislation.

We do not believe that the Internet requires further heavy-handed regulation, and would propose two principles as a suitable basis for advance:

·       A presumption in favour of ‘democratised regulation’, namely pushing more control to the users and producers of communication and information services – the public. This is not simply another term for self-regulation, as it requires regulatory support at many levels (see below). A good example of democratised regulation would be the currently evolving system for content regulation whereby only extremely limited forms of illegal content (such as child pornography) might be blocked by mandate or on a centralized basis, with users having access to PC-based tools, a ‘home hub,’ or an ISP filtering system that enables them to choose how much content (if any) they want filtered. In this sense, parents, educators and users generally, could be given more control over their own communications infrastructure in a way that is low cost for government and industry.

·       A presumption in favour of regulation only where it is needed to ensure the preservation of a fair, accessible and open Internet, or to protect the most fundamental rights such as freedom of speech or protection from abuse.

I would also like to draw your attention to related post by Roger Darlington at http://www.rogerdarlington.me.uk/commswatch/?p=2900 Roger has been posting links to other submissions here: http://www.rogerdarlington.me.uk/commswatch/

Roger Darlington’s Website: http://www.rogerdarlington.me.uk/convergence.html

David Grahams’ Blog: http://www.attentional.com/david-grahams-blog/2011/05/a-new-communications-bill-is-coming/

Digital Policy Issues for the New Communications Bill

Digital Policy Issues for the New Communications Bill

A Meeting to be held as part of an ESRC Seminar Series entitled ‘Digital Policy: Connectivity, Creativity and Rights

Location: Oxford Internet Institute (OII) Seminar Room, 1 St Giles’, Oxford

Time: 10.00-16.00 on 24 June 2011

An invited group of academics and practitioners will meet at the OII on 24 June 2011 to identify the key policy issues that should be considered in the UK’s new communications bill. Press coverage of the Oxford Media Convention, various interviews over the following months, and an open letter by the Minister, indicate that the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) plans to issue a green paper in the near-future – possibly by the end of the summer or early autumn 2011. Therefore is critical that debate over the key objectives and issues of the new communications bill begins early, before the initial green paper is published. The meeting will be one in an ESRC Seminar Series, entitled ‘Digital Policy: Connectivity, Creativity and Rights’: http://idl.newport.ac.uk/digitalpolicy/ for which I am a co-principal. My colleagues and I are in the early life of this series, but one of our clear aims is to help shape and inform debate about digital policy. It is difficult to think of a more significant focus of a discussion of digital policy in Britain than the forthcoming communications bill. That said, we would define ‘digital policy’ broadly, in the spirit of increasing convergence across the ecology of media and related information and communication technologies, such as the Internet and mobile communication, that are shaping the quality and diversity of communication in the UK and worldwide.

If you would like to join this discussion, please comment on this blog or send a note to <events@oii.ox.ac.uk> at your earliest convenience. We are trying to limit numbers but should be able to bring in individuals that can add to the mix of expertise we wish to assemble on the day. Whether or not you can attend this session, you are invited to send a one-page position paper before the 17th of June, which we will use to identify the key issues. I will edit and collate these for participants on the day, and use them to shape the agendafor the seminar. A key outcome of this meeting is the identification of key issues, but we also hope this meeting will suggest follow-ups to this discussion, which can be organised by the ESRC Seminar Series, or by others, as we seek to broaden and deepen discussion of the communications bill.

A short summary of the seminar will be posted in due course, but do let me know if you wish to attend, and please post or send your thoughts on critical issues. Also consult the event page on the OII Web site for further details at: http://oii.ox.ac.uk/events/?id=445

Launch of New ESRC Research Seminar Series on ‘Digital Policy: Connectivity, Creativity and Rights’

A new ESRC Research Seminar Series on Digital Policy: Connectivity, Creativity and Rights will be launched at University of Wales, Newport, on April 1 2011. This event ‘Digital Wales: Inclusive Creativity and Economy’ is hosted by the School of Art, Media and Design. The main project Web site is at: http://idl.newport.ac.uk/digitalpolicy/

The day features speakers including David Warrender (Director Digital Wales, Welsh Assembly Government), Ian Hargreaves (Cardiff University), William Dutton (Oxford Internet Institute), Lorna Hughes (National Library of Wales), Rhodri Williams (Ofcom), Hamish Fyfe (University of Glamorgan), Panayiota Tatsou (Swansea University), Sangeet Bhullar (Wise Kids), Iain Tweedale (BBC) and the Artist Keynote will be John Goto (University of Derby).

The series led by Gillian Youngs (University of Wales, Newport), Tracy Simmons (University of Leicester), William Dutton (Oxford Internet Institute), Katharine Sarikakis (University of Vienna) will run over two years.

Digital policy is currently high on political, communications and commercial agendas. Controversial areas such as copyright infringement, the future and functions of public service content, and the role of Ofcom are core issues.  In the longer term the potential for economic transformations and growth through the digital economy, including the development of new skills, technological and industrial innovation and creativity, are at stake.

This seminar series aims to bring together a distinctive mix of academic researchers at all levels, including research students, with policymakers and practitioners to focus on three key areas: connectivity, creativity and rights.

The series aims to explore questions such as: What kind of digital future is envisaged in Britain? Who continues to be left out or at risk in this digital future? What can be done to overcome major technical, knowledge and skills barriers to this? What new kinds of creativity and innovation are being unleashed by digital change and how can these be expanded? How is the public service ethos being tested and enhanced in the digital environment?  The series will consider connectivity from social and skills-based as well as infrastructural and technical perspectives.

We are currently filling the last few places for the April 1 seminar. If anyone is interested in presenting their research or participating in the series or co-hosting an event as part of it please contact Gillian Youngs (gillian.youngs@newport.ac.uk).

 

Networking Distributed Public Expertise: Strategies for Citizen Sourcing Advice to Government

My paper on ‘Networking Distributed Public Expertise: Strategies for Citizen Sourcing Advice to Government’ is one of a series of Occasional Papers in Science and Technology Policy, Science and Technology Policy Institute (TPI), Institute for Defense Analyses, Washington DC. I will post the abstract below and would welcome comments, directly or to this blog.

Networking Public Expertise

Abstract

The potential of crowd sourcing has captured the imagination of many managers and professionals across all sectors of society, but left many others quite skeptical. This is not only because conceptions of the wisdom of crowds appear counter-intuitive, but also, if taken literally, these concepts can be misleading and therefore dysfunctional for governments seeking to adopt innovations in distributed collaboration. This paper challenges conventional notions of the wisdom of crowds, arguing that distributed intelligence must be well structured by technical platforms and management strategies. After clarifying these conceptual issues, the paper explains how collaborative networking can be used to harness the distributed expertise of citizens, as distinguished from citizen consultation, which seeks to engage citizens – each on an equal footing. Networking the public as advisors aims to involve experts on particular public issues and problems distributed anywhere in the world. The paper then describes the lessons learned from previous efforts to citizen source advice, and why governments should again pursue this strategy as a means to inform policy and decision-making. This is followed by a set of nine strategies for fostering the bottom-up development of governmental initiatives aimed at harnessing distributed public expertise.

 

If there is any difficulty obtaining this paper, a copy is available on SSRN at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1767870