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. 

Evidence of Benefits from Opening the White House Press Briefings via Skype Seats

I’ve argued on this blog that the idea of enabling the press to ask questions from outside the White House Press Office, in fact, outside the Washington DC Beltway, was a good idea. Some anecdotal evidence is being reported that the strategy is working. USA Today reported that over 13 White House press briefings, Sean Spicer has taken questions ‘from 32 outside-the-Beltway outlets’. This is a great example of using the Internet to enable more distributed participation. The Washington press is obviously defensive when people complain about the ‘media bubble’ in the briefing room, but the potential for what was once called ‘pack journalism’ is real, and location matters. Geographically distributing contributions is symbolically and materially opening the briefings up to more diversity of viewpoints and issues. th-1

Inevitably, more voices means more competition among the journalists in asking questions. But there are already too many in the room, and why it is fair to give more access to the outlets that can afford to station staff in Washington DC is not clear to me. That said, the Skype seats will always be the cheap seats, and be less likely to get their turn in the question and answer sessions.

My earlier post is here.

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:

Yorick Wilks:

Greg Taylor:

Innovations in University Outreach: Join the Competition across Europe

European Competition for Best Innovations in University Outreach and Public Engagement

As part of the EC-funded ULab project, the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford is organizing an online competition to identify the most innovative outreach and public engagement activities carried out by European Universities. Both individuals and groups may apply for awards.

Competition submissions must be for an activity that has been initiated and sustained at any university or higher education institution within the 27 EU member states, including projects that might have involved collaboration with institutions outside the EU. The entry can be from one or a number of cooperating universities.

The three winning entries will each receive a 5000 EUR prize for their institution as well as funding for a representative to attend the award ceremony at the University of Oxford on 8 June 2012.


Entries will be judged on the following equally weighted criteria:

  • Clarity of purpose: Clear definition of the objectives of the initiative; awareness of, and strategies to meet, the needs of different target audiences (25%).
  • Impact: Reporting and evaluation of the impact of the initiative; making use of quantitative measures (such as attendance rates, web traffic, surveys) and / or qualitative ones (such as interviews, focus groups) (25%).
  • Originality: Evidence of creativity and originality, including innovative ways of measuring impact (25%).
  • Sustainability: Evidence of sustainability for future use of the initiative by your own institution or by others (e.g. through open access, open licencing) (25%).

Application Procedure

Entries should be submitted online at by 15 March 2012.

For each entry, please submit:

  • 1,000 word description and evaluation (in English) of your outreach and public engagement initiative, making sure you address all of the assessment criteria (listed above), including links to any relevant information (which can be in any European language).
  • 150 word abstract in English.
  • A letter from your host institution, indicating their agreement for the case to be submitted to the competition.

The three winning entries will be announced on the 23rd of April 2012.

The competition is open to anyone from any European university or higher education institution. Awards will be made to institutions (or units) rather than to individuals. All entries will be made public on the website, forming part of an online repository of good practice in outreach.

More information

For more information about the judges and the awards ceremony see For specific enquiries please email

ULab is an innovative think-tank of five leading Technical and Research-intensive European Universities: the Technical University of Madrid, the Polytechnic University of Turin, the Technical University of Munich, the Paris Institute of Technology and the University of Oxford. It is a two year project funded by the EC

The Fifth Estate and the Oil Spill Disaster: Oil Reporter by CrisisCamp

Networked individuals are rapidly playing a more central role in holding BP and all parties more accountable for their roles in the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. One of the most promising developments is the launch of the ‘Oil Reporter‘. This is an open platform for citizens to keep and eye on beaches and other developments related to the oil spill and to report their observations in meaningful ways. Geo-tagged photos of beaches over time can be visualized through the help of San Diego State University’s Visualization Centre. It is all brought to us by CrisisCamp, a very successful group of newtworked individuals, who have played a remarkable role in the response to the crisis in Haiti.

Do take a look at their sight, and contribute as you can. You can ‘adopt a beach’, contribute your photographs, expertise, your networks, or moral support. The press will quickly lose their focus on this event as it becomes old news, but it is critical that the public continues to hold all the actors accountable and this is a potential role that the Fifth Estate of networked individuals is well equipped to play. Of course, this is not either or as the mass media has and will continue to play a major role, such as in showcasing the views of Erin Brockovich, who Julia Roberts made famous, but who has recently spoken out on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Governments have also been contributing to the resources online that are accessible to networked individuals, such as the fact sheet on the oil spill put up by the White House, albeit absent any photographic images.

I should also point out the role that Wikipedia is playing in documenting this event – another example of collaborative network organizations providing major resources for public accountability. See:

To learn more about ‘Oil Reporter’, see:

Digital Business Strategy: A Call for Papers

I have agreed to be an associate editor of a special issue of MIS Quarterly, entitled ‘Digital Business Strategy: Toward a Next Generation of Insights’. A former colleague of mine, Omar El Sawy at USC, is co-editing this issue with others. There is a very well considered call for papers available for this issue, and I hope you consider this if your research is relevant to how the IT strategies of firms should be aligned with their business strategies. Of course, challenges to this thesis would be as welcome, particularly if based on empirical research. I am hopeful that the editors receive submissions from research anchored in Europe, but also the Internet research community. I would particularly welcome research on small business enterprises. Given all of the research around the digital divide across households, much more needs to be done to look at divides within business sectors that might strategically disadvantage firms that are not using the Internet in strategic ways.

Seminar 09 Response to EC’s Public Consultation on post-i2010

The Internet and the Future European Information Society: Key Issues Behind the Development of Guiding Principles

A position paper prepared for submission to the European Commission’s public consultation on post-i2010: priorities for new strategy for European information society (2010-2015).

Contributors to this response include the following participants in the European Alpbach Forum Seminar 09: Bill Dutton, Yorick Wilks, Isabella Hengl, Andreas Pinterits , Julian Ausserhofer, Hannes Oberschmid, Sandra Berger, Christian Witz, Krzysztof Wilczek, Gerald Neugschwandtner, Isabell Ladiges, and Lakshmi Rama Kinan Pasumarthy [1]

I. Principles for Shaping the Future of the Internet

This response to the consultation is a position paper that was co-produced by the students and faculty of Seminar 09 of the European Forum Alpbach 2009, which met in Alpbach, Austria, for one week, from the 21st to the 26th of August, 2009, on the topic of ‘The Future of the Internet’. The instructors were William Dutton[2], and Yorick Wilks[3] but all participants shaped the ideas contained in the report and the use of the Internet to co-create this response.

The Alpbach Forum and Seminar 09

The European Alpbach Forums[4] were launched in 1945 and have become a distinguished annual gathering, where students, faculty and prominent figures in public and scientific life gather to debate a range of political, social and intellectual issues, including their scientific provenance and impact, and to consider them, increasingly, in the context of a united Europe, while not neglecting their world-wide implications. It seemed entirely appropriate to the aims and scope of Alpbach that the Future Internet Seminar 09 should respond to this consultation on the future European information society, and we did so through discussion in the seminar, and also by using the Internet to enable all the seminar participants to contribute to its drafting.


Participants in Seminar 09 began with the assumption that the Internet has enabled essentially what has been called a ‘Fifth Estate’ by virtue of supporting networked individuals in ways that provide an independent source of social accountability.[5] In many respects, this Fifth Estate has become an essential part of the social, political and scientific framework of society, and thereby extending Edmund Burke’s famous declaration in the Eighteenth Century that the press was had become the ‘Fourth Estate’ in addition to the classic trio of those times, defined by nobility, the clergy and the Commons.

But the Internet is not merely a new separation of powers, independent of the press, and in need of similar protections, but also a tool for all existing institutions and individuals to support their own objectives and interests. It is a new infrastructure of 21st Century society that cannot be ruled by the laws and conventions that govern older institutions, such as the press or mass media, any more than it can by the regulations designed for telecommunications. It is a genuinely new development that requires unique approaches by governments, regulators and citizens. For example, recent history and experience has shown that the dangers, possibilities and promise of the Internet exceed all the previous bounds of the press and mass media.

This paper begins with a recognition of the well-known dangers the Internet poses and ends with some principles that any future European initiatives on the information society, legislative, regulatory or otherwise, should observe. The core of the paper sets out some of the key issues at stake in the future European information society, which the seminar participants identified as particularly signficant foci for analysis and proposals from among the many others we could have chosen. Each is clarified by a set of questions and proposals designed to more concretely convey their significance and scope. Those key issues raised at the seminar included:
* The Internet and Education

* Internet Governance

* Enhancing and Stimulating the Quality of Public Information and Debate

* Identity, Privacy and Data Protection

Many other equally important issues, such as eHealth, were identified and discussed, but were too numerous to cover in this response.
The major issues raised by the seminar are focused on realizing the potential of the Internet in transforming many existing social and political institutions in positive ways, such as by enhancing access to high-quality information. However, it is important to recognize the many negative aspects of the Internet, much publicized by the press and well known to the public (see Box 1). What is proposed here by way of conventions, and any future legal or regulatory remedies at national or Union level, should seek to minimize these in so far as that is possible without compromising key pillars of a free and open society, which the Internet can enhance.

Box 1. Concerns Raised about the Internet in Society

  • character assassination in social networks
  • cyber-bullying especially of school pupils in social networks
  • cyberstalking
  • social support of suicide or self-harm or reinforcing and enabling negative behavior, addictions: e.g. overeating, pornography, violent games and gambling
  • fragmentation (isolating rather than networking individuals)
  • creation of a ‘digital divide’ — reinforcing socioeconomic divides between those on and off the Internet
  • a general perception of  ‘dumbing down’ information and entertainment, making the population more stupid
  • recruiting people to antisocial networks and conspiracies
  • plagiarism and other forms of inappropriate copying rather than creating and mixing content
  • cracking/hacking of privileged or private material

In short, the participants of Seminar 09 are fully aware that the Internet can be a double-edged sword, which can be used for negative and well as positive purposes in many of the same ways as other technologies, from language to nuclear energy.

II.  Issues Facing the Future of the Internet

In considering the role of the Internet in shaping the European information society, seminar participants had more questions than answers. Our most general conclusion was that the European Commission should address these and related questions as a matter of urgency, guided by a set of principles, as discussed in the final section of this paper. The seminar identified dozens of issues, but we would put forward the following as illustrative of some of the key issues that the Commission could usefully address through research or other EU initiatives.

The Internet and Education


  1. Does the original EC call for comments (to which this replies) seem more concerned with “child safety” than literacy?
  2. Is there any measure for a user of how effective they are at searching the Internet (i.e. how much of what they want do they actually get?)?
  3. Should there be more focus on improving a citizen’s search effectiveness?
  4. Are current uses of the Internet for educational purposes sufficiently radical, given the novel approaches that are now possible?
  5. Has traditional education been left more or less unchanged by the Internet?
  6. Why should educational standards be imposed on higher education by various authorities when the very best centers (e.g. MIT) are making so much material available free on line, enabling anyone can judge for themselves?
  7. Teachers hate the ability of students to just copy in slabs of Internet material and doubt the ability of proprietory plagiarism packages to catch it all—are the they right–what can be done beyond easy, cheap and reliable catch-copiers software?
  8. Some have thought all this free information everywhere means the end of the traditional university and lectures (e.g. Eli Noam, Roger Schank). Will they be proven right?


  1. Attempt some more radical form of collaborative eLearning for everyone, using the tools now available.
  2. Establish more Internet-based quality measurement in education, enabling students to rate teaching programs/ teachers / professors, just as consumers do with films, books, and consumer products. This could be global, and entail transnational cooperation between schools and universities.
  3. Establish free Internet access to universities, with free online lectures
  4. Attempt to establish closer international collaboration between educational institutions, as the free movement of students across Europe has not yet worked.
  5. Media awareness or literacy starts in school – education is a key issue to enhance Internet and media literacy. Children should learn, for example, how search engines work or how to use Web 2.0 carefully. The Internet should be a basic working tool across many subjects, not only for informatics. It is therefore necessary to change the education of teachers as well, so they are able to teach students how to more effectively use new information and communication technologies.
  6. The European Commission is already aware of media and Internet literacy. But the current document ‘on media literacy in the digital environment for a more competitive audiovisual and content industry and an inclusive knowledge society’ of August 2009 seems to focus more on child safety than on a special media literacy that extends well beyond children.

Internet Governance


  1. In the long run, who will be more dangerous for users’ freedom of expression and access: governments or big companies?
  2. Does the W3C have any real legitimacy since it is not elected by, or responsible to, anyone?
  3. How much worse will the world be if the trend towards national or regional Internets continues?


  1. Since hardware has a major influence on the Internet and how we use it, the EU should take close account of the work of the W3C even without any control over it, but it should regularly express its considered opinions to it.
  2. The EU should remain strongly committed to a ‘universal’ Internet, rather than any sort of regional or national one having priority; the predecessors of the Internet were strongly based on regional content and they couldn’t have survived in the long term.
  3. The EU should encourage efforts to organize Internet governance in a multilateral way, such as the Working Group on Internet Governance of the WSIS  (, while avoiding over-regulation. Even if the attempts to find a consensus on the different models of governance has not been reached so far, this forum is an opportunity to enhance dialogue on this and related topics. In the short term, and as long as no consensus on an intergovernmental council is found, this forum could also be used as an instrument to strengthen both international assistance and access of vulnerable groups to the Internet, and the EU should work within such a framework.

Enhancing and Stimulating Quality of Public Information and Debate


  1. Is a Wikipedia better if moderated explicitly like the German one, rather than the EN one’s free-for-all (though even that is not really so, of course)?
  2. Can you have any kind of official verification of information since there is no general agreement on the truth (e.g is there Dark Matter or not? Are human beings as a species less than 10k years old or not? Do animals have rights or not?)
  3. What can be done to protect the independence of the press, as a Fourth Estate’ and networked individuals of the ‘Fifth Estate’ as one approach to ensuring greater social accountability of the press, public intellectuals, governments, and business?


  1. Information is considered to be a public good in democracies. Therefore, the question of who has the control over the flow of information and the regulation of censorship is necessary in order to enable each citizen to participate fully in the decision process. Internet information sites could be used as a meta-medium and as a place for freedom of expression.
  2. Especially concerning topics such as health, medicine or technology an enhanced review of information might be possible. Online and regulated communities with special mechanisms to validate potentially dangerous information could be created.
  3. The entries in Wikipedia should be guided by the facts the majority of scientists agree upon, but other views should definitely be present and visible, with criticism of all viewpoints actively encouraged.
  4. Product data for consumers on the Internet should be clearer, shorter and consumers should be able to accept different levels of acceptance of conditions, rather than one take-it-or-leave-it box tick.

Identity, Privacy and Data Protection


  1. Is there support for radical identity management proposals, such as control over self-naming by the individual citizen and the limit to which he/she has to reveal their identity at all times on the Internet?
  2. Are there irresolvable national or cultural differences over such questions that make universal agreement impossible or not?
  3. Does a person totally own and control, say, their own health  data (as in Spain)?
  4. Can political expression be genuinely protected on the Internet without the assurance of anonymity, as recently illustrated by the arrest of Twitter users in Iran?


  1. The Internet should enable an individual to be anonymous when they wish to be, such as in contacting a help line, or expressing unpopular views on public policy. This anonymity should only be removed if accepted by the user, as in eGovernment or eCommerce applications, or signed emails. For that purpose the Commission should provide a free, trustworthy, easy-to-access and easy-to-use signing and encryption technology.
  2. Medical history should ideally be stored in closed networks in an encrypted, anonymous, form. A card (like the eCard in Austria) would then be the only link between the medical data and the user’s identity. Every user interaction with this data would follow an acceptable protocol and reviewed.
  3. The Web remains too insecure to use it for basic governmental actions like remote Internet voting. Creative means to be developed to enhance security in such situations, since the public is polled by all kinds of actors in ways that could be influencing policy and practice.
  4. Every Web 2.0 provider should give their users the right to edit or delete their own contributions permanently. A quality seal should be established to certify the providers of such editing procedures and the procedures should be reviewed from an agency of the European Commission.
  5. All backup data should have a clear and limited time span for being kept. Only reviewed and sorted data should be retained for long periods. This rule can be compared to the deletion of offenses from a person’s criminal record and the archiving of important documents and pictures in mines. Data miners like Google should follow this rule. Generally, data retention should be the focus of as much attention as data creation.
  6. The use of Trojans by State authorities would reduce trust in the government and stimulate paranoia among a population. The costs of such a Trojan would also be very high because it has to be updated to pass daily updating anti-virus software. If nevertheless the technology is allowed in a European country, it should only be allowed by judges as the security need arises. A lawyer who protects the personal rights of any suspect should be included from the beginning of any such process.
  7. The music industry as well as journalism should adapt to the new circumstances rather than to avoid them. Maybe they should be considered as public goods and therefore publicly financed.

III. Principles for a Future Internet in Europe

Seminar participants realized that they were only able to address a subset of the many issues facing the future European information society, and that even so, the answers to these questions are far from clear. We therefore saw it as critically important that the Commission recognize the uncertainty surrounding how to address many issues, but at the same time provide some basis for moving ahead. It was in that spirit that the seminar turned its attention to a set of principles for shaping the future information society. While we do not pretend to have a handle on the exact set of principals, given the time limitations of a single seminar, we offer a set of principles as a means to concretely express the kinds of considerations that the Commission might consider as guiding principles for moving ahead.

One over-arching question was whether the European Union is an appropriate level for any kind of Internet directives, given that it is an association of cultures, nations and communities whose autonomy and right of expression must be respected and whose Internet needs and practices may well differ, e.g., the urge to control pornography on the Internet will be far stronger in some states than in others and the laws of defamation and libel may well differ significantly. It is neither local or global in its makeup – but the Internet operates at all these levels. Clearly, it is the responsibility of the highest level EU policy to ensure that all Union citizens have access to the Internet, and that access is roughly similar in principle in all states and regions. It would be clearly inconsistent with EU practice and legislation on the free movement of labor to have any kind of special firewall, or filter, that cut off a region or state, but there is, in any case, no likelihood of this as far as we are aware.

This leads to the general suggestion that rather than attempting to legislate, regulate and control the Internet piecemeal, the EC should develop a clear set of principles to guide the formation and execution of any such proposals. It is in this spirit that we suggest that the EU develops a set of guiding principles, illustrated by those that surfaced in our seminar’s discussions (See Box 2).

Box 2. Starting Points for a Set of Guiding Principles

  • Avoid any form of Internet censorship, keeping the Internet a medium for free and open communication and access to worldwide sources of information
  • Keep the Internet world wide, avoiding its nationalization or regionalisation through inappropriate regulation or legislation
  • Try to emulate the best methods used in the off-line world
  • Treat information as a public good
  • Respect European, local and global cultures
  • Aim for provision of free Internet access anywhere, anytime; and do not cut-off access to the Internet as a form of punishment
  • Support/stimulate self-regulation
  • Support public problem solving, and the right to contribute content
  • Block children’s access to harmful material
  • Strengthen the role of an information, privacy and data protection Commissioner, as these issues are too complex for individuals to protect themselves without support
  • Maximize every citizen’s control of their personal data, such as who may see what information under what circumstances
  • Give personal control over one’s identity
  • Protect the right of an individual to anonymity on the Internet
  • Ensure equal treatment over access to official data: no exemptions for the privileged (such as to hide data about themselves, if available about others)
  • Support a plurality of information sources, avoiding information monopolies
  • Public service media should be able to use public finds for their Internet operations
  • Consider a universal Digital Bill of Rights for the 21st Century

[1] Acknowledgements: The views presented in this report are those of the contributing authors, and are not necessarily the views of the European Alpbach Forum, its organizers, or members of the seminar who did not put their names on this report. However, the authors wish to acknowledge the Alpbach Forum and all of the participants in Seminar 09 for creating the setting to make this response possible.

[2] Director, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

[3] Professor of Artificial Intelligence, Department of Computer Science,

University of Sheffield


[5] The concept of a Fifth Estate has been developed by Bill Dutton. For example see:

European Forum Alpbach 2009 and Seminar 09

I attended a stimulating forum in Alpbach, Austria, from the 20th to 26th of August. The forum is well known in the German speaking regions of Europe, but less visible than it should be, in Britain, for example. The forum was launched in 1945, immediately following the Second World War, as a means to open up communication about public issues. The beauty and peacefulness of the site, wonderful for Alpine hiking, certainly might contribute to bringing people together. My major role was to direct a seminar on the Future of the Internet (Seminar 09), which I did in collaboration with Professor Yorick Wilks of the OII (photograph). You can get a glimpse of our seminar on YouTube if you search for ‘on the World Wide Web Alpbach’. The theme of the seminar and the larger forum was Trust. Many points were made about the theme’s choice, since it preceded the credit crunch, which prioritized issues of trust. It did prove to be a useful link across a wide variety of seminars. I also participated in a plenary panel, entitled ‘Public Media in the Digital Age: Whom do you trust?’ This was chaired by Roger De Weck, a major print journalist within the German and Austrian sphere.

Yorick Wilks
Yorick Wilks

Alpbach Music on Official Forum Launch
Alpbach Music on Official Forum Launch

Two of the most general lessons learned from the forum were both around the centrality of the Internet in the new media landscape. First, there is major angst over the impact of the Internet across the media landscape. This came out clearly in the panel on which I participated, but throughout the conference more generally. However, there was clearly a generational divide, with younger participants being as enthusiastic and Internet media literate as anywhere in the world, but the older participants, predominantly from the humanities, being far more concerned about the potential implications of the transformations occurring in broadcasting and the media generally. I realize that this generation divide is becoming nearly a cliche, but it manifested itself clearly throughout the forum.

Secondly, the Internet proved so instrumental in enabling our seminar to move beyond the traditional practices at the forum. We were fortunate that a European consultation was launched immediately before the forum: ‘A Public Consultation on Post-i2010: Priorities for New Strategy for European Information Society (2010-2015)’. Seminar 09 participants were intrigued by the idea of drafting some input for the consultation, and set up a Google document so that that 25-plus students could jointly co-create a response. At once, it provided a real concrete objective for the course, a case study of the potential and difficulties of collaborative networks, and a means to integrate and apply the themes arising in the lectures, which preceded each day’s work on the consultation. I will blog something separately about our input, once it is completed.

In the meantime, do make your own contributions to the public consultation. It enables you to answer a questionnaire or post a position paper.

A View from Alpbach August 2009
A View from Alpbach August 2009

Swine Flu and the Internet: A Real Watershed for Networking

National concern over the spread of swine flu led the UK National Health Service to set up a telephone hotline, but also an Internet Website. The site provides a set of tick boxes – a questionnaire – that is self-administered. The answers permit individuals to make a more informed judgment of whether they do, or do not, have swine flu, or a more serious problem, and whether and how they can obtain antivirals. The traffic to this site has been phenomenal — literally crashing the site and forcing the service to add more capacity to deal with the volume of hits. Clearly, it has helped many people gain some personalized information about their own condition. To me, this is more evidence that the Internet has passed a tipping point at which it has become an essential aspect of everyday life and work.

Headline in The Times 24 July 09
Headline in The Times 24 July 09

Related journalistic coverage has illustrated that individuals who have been quarantined due to the swine flu have been able to keep in touch over the Internet. E-mail, Skype, and other tools are helping individuals to stay isolated and still get help as needed from friends and family. Preparations are already underway for how the Internet could help students keep up with their studies if they must remain home during the coming months, when the flu epidemic is expected to spike.

That said, the major media stories have been critical of the services – both the telephone hot line and the Website. One criticism is that the users are not speaking directly to a qualified physician. One editorial claimed that the operator on the hot line had mispronounced several medical terms. Another concern was that users would fabricate their answers in taking the online self-assessment to obtain inappropriate access to antiviral drugs. It stikes me that the whole point of these electronic service options has been to address the impossibility of physicians dealing directly with a flood of individuals calling at their offices or coming into their doctor’s offices or hospitals with the added risk of spreading the virus to others. Doctors have designed the questionnaires and real people are manning the phones, so I would be happy to defend these approaches in comparison with the alternatives — no service or overwhelming demands on health facilities.

This case will be remembered as a real turning point in recognition for what the Internet can contribute in the healthcare arena. Many seniors (70% of whom do not have access to the Internet in the UK), who often believe that the Internet has nothing of relevance for them might learn from this experience. Fortunately, the elderly are less at risk from swine flu, but other flu epidemics and communicable diseases do put senior citizens, or other demographic groups, at risk. Being able to obtain information directly from one’s household is of great importance, as illustrated by this pandemic. The advocates of e-Health have hit a home run in having the courage to establish this Internet service, knowing it would be a target of criticism, and demonstrating that the Internet can provide a response to contagious disease or the risk of spreading a flu virus.

Soon we should be learning something from the patterns of use of this Website. It should be possible to have more information to map the incidence and spread of swine flu by tracking access to this and other Websites focused on this flu. In such ways, services such as this can help generate additional information that will help address public concerns.

Ofcom Advisory Boards for the Nations and Regions of the UK and Northern Ireland

Ofcom has four Advisory Committees to connect Ofcom to the views and interests of people within the nations and regions of the UK. The site has been up-dated to reflect the new composition of the committees, their responsibilities, and terms of reference. I would encourage you to follow the work of these committees, and let them know if you see aspects of their work that could be improved in any way. See:

My own focus is tied to the Advisory Committee for England (ACE), on which I serve. So I would welcome your comments on this committee or Ofcom. I am particularly interested in key issues facing the Southeast region of England, as well as the nation as a whole. Do comment.