Piracy, privacy and the Digital Charter


By William Bowes, Director of Policy & General Counsel

The UK government recently launched its Digital Charter, designed to make the UK a great place to operate and innovate in the digital space, while managing the risks associated with the internet.

The charter will see new norms established and rules drawn up over the course of the next few years, aimed at making the internet work for everyone.

It sets out to protect the internet’s liberal foundations and harness the positive opportunities it offers, while also protecting its users against dangerous and destructive content and preventing abuse of objective news and intellectual property.

From a publishers’ perspective, the policy makers need to balance the rights of the user with protecting the online content providers.

The Digital Charter will be guided by these key principles:

  • the internet should be free, open and accessible
  • people should understand the rules that apply to them when they are online
  • personal data should be respected and used appropriately
  • protections should be in place to help keep people safe online, especially children
  • the same rights that people have offline must be protected online
  • the social and economic benefits brought by new technologies should be fairly shared

Publishers agree the internet and its content should be accessible to all, but they are concerned about how the ‘free and open’ elements will be interpreted. The implication is that people don’t have to pay for things online and yet, quality content cannot be generated and provided for free.

Most publishers would argue that access to their content does need to be controlled to ensure users pay for it. Without a secure model which ensures professional content retains its value, the future of publishing is threatened.

As publishers, we want to bring our content to as many people as possible, but we do need to get paid for what we do.

So, the key for us is in creating smooth and user-friendly access which requires some sort of authentication to ensure the content’s value is protected.

To build better access models, publishers are finding new ways to harness and analyse user data more effectively. This in turn helps us to understand the wants and needs of the user and the challenges they face.

There is a lot of concern among members of the Publishers Association about piracy and theft of intellectual property (IP) so the charter’s promise to protect against this is a welcome one. This is, however, very tricky to enforce so it will need cooperation between government, enforcement agencies and the big internet companies.

A lot of the work we want to do is around educating policy makers about the wider implications of any potential changes and rules introduced in the charter.

One example is copyright exceptions. These are sensible in some cases but they also present challenges. If exceptions around educational content, for example, become too broad then that would undermine the IP value of any academic or scientific research paper. This would make it impossible for many publishers who curate this kind of content to survive because, again, they would be forced to offer all their content for free.

Publishers are also concerned about any extension of the rights of e-lending, so an e-book can be passed on multiple times.

Ahead of the conference we will be talking to all our members to flesh out the details of what they would like to see in the Digital Charter and what has sparked concern.

The laws of the future are going to get written over the next three to five years and as we enter this period, we’ve got to make sure policy makers know what these issues mean for educational publishers and research bodies operating in the digital space.