Government kicks off fresh debate on comms law

Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has written an open letter to those working in the telecoms and other digital industries, inviting opinions on a new, deregulation-focused Communications Bill

The government has asked for feedback on ideas for new laws to govern the telecommunications, online-media and digital-content industries, as a prelude to introducing a new Communications Act in 2015.

Jeremy Hunt

Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has written an open letter inviting opinions on a new, deregulation-focused Communications Bill. Photo credit: Conservative Party

In an open letter to people working in those industries, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt said the government is embarking on a wide-ranging review of UK communications rules "to ensure the regulatory framework in place is fit for the digital age".

The current Communications Act became law in 2003, and the informal consultation initiated on Monday is the first stage in coming up with a fresher regime.

"We want to ensure we have the framework in place to enable further success and promote healthy competition and growth in this innovative sector," Hunt wrote with regards to the broadband and radio spectrum aspects of the policy review. "We need to adopt a flexible solution to this challenge. A deregulatory approach that deals with these developments to the benefit of both consumers and citizens, and also industry, is the aim."

A deregulatory approach that deals with these developments to the benefit of both consumers and citizens, and also industry, is the aim.

– Jeremy Hunt, culture secretary

The 2003 act covers the regulation of the entire telecoms, broadcast and media industries, and effectively gives the regulator Ofcom its powers. Examples of the act's application include the prosecution of Paul Chambers for making a joke bomb threat on Twitter, the imposition of an ISP's responsibilities on public libraries offering Wi-Fi, and prosecutions for the 'hijacking' of other people's internet connections.

While the government is focused on growth in the relevant industries, "the wider public interest will always underpin our approach to how any issues are addressed", Hunt noted. He stressed the government remains "committed to the principle of independent regulation and will ensure that Ofcom has the right powers and duties to work in a way that gives businesses confidence in the regulatory system".

Communications Bill

The "dialogue" opened on Monday is not a formal consultation, but rather a "first stage in engagement with a view to a Communications Bill" that will appear in draft form around 2013, a spokeswoman for Hunt's Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) told ZDNet UK.

The questionnaire includes questions such as: "What action can be taken to facilitate greater innovation and growth across the wider competition regime, and how can deregulation help achieve this?"

Asked whether there is an assumption that deregulation is the best approach, the DCMS spokeswoman said the department "starts looking at it from that basis, but we're asking people open questions and asking them what they think".

A section of the questionnaire is entitled "Creating the right environment for the content industry to thrive". Much of this is to do with public broadcasting, and the accompanying text noted that the section does not cover intellectual property issues, the governments's plans for which will derive from the upcoming Hargreaves Review. 

Those who wish to respond to the letter must do so by 30 June, adding verifiable data to back up their assertions where possible. The evidence and responses will feed into a green paper, which would be followed by "a long period of consultation with a view to producing a white paper and draft bill by April 2013", Hunt said.

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