Since 2003, I have written regular articles on information technology for Connect, which used to be a separate trade union and in 2010 became a section of the larger union Prospect and in 2016 joined with BECTU to become a sector of Prospect. Since 2017, my articles have been published in the sector magazine "Stage, Screen & Radio". The text of all these articles, with relevant hyperlinks, are filed on my web site and this page brings together all those from 2018. If you would like to comment on any of them e-mail me.
Spring 2018 What Has Caused This Growing Tech-Lash? Summer 2018 It's Time For A Broadband Universal Service Obligation Autumn 2018 Are You Being Served? Winter 2018 The Internet At Regulatory Crossroads
Much of the early excitement around new online services has waned as worries have grown about the impact of these services on everything from our brains to our democracy, writes ROGER DARLINGTON.
WHAT HAS CAUSED THIS GROWING TECH-LASH?
In the excellent film “The Social Network” [my review here], brilliantly written by Aaron Sorkin of “The West Wing” fame, there is a dramatic scene when Facebook acquires its one millionth user. Today it has over two billion – and growing.
So Facebook, Google and Amazon and their services are becoming ever more popular, right? Well, no. There is a growing backlash against the tech giants that has been dubbed “tech-lash”.
Governments are concerned that they are not paying their fair share of taxes in the countries where they generate the most revenues; regulators are worried that they are stifling competition and crushing smaller players; politicians fear the impact of fake news and filter bubbles; parents and teachers are anxious that children are becoming addicted to the small screen.
There is an expression in the business world that companies should be willing “to eat their own breakfast” – that is, use their own products and services. Yet, astonishingly a growing number of tech entrepreneurs are revealing that they do not use many of these services themselves and, even more seriously, do not want their children to do so,
So, for instance, Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, has declared: “I don’t have a kid, but I have a nephew that I put some boundaries on. There are some things that I won’t allow; I don’t want them on a social network.”
Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, has written: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” If you have a child or grandchild, you will know the problem.
Here in the Britain, according to the regulator Ofcom, 83% of 12- to 15-year-olds have a smartphone, and half of all children have a social media profile by age 12.
But these concerns are not new. In 2008, the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, asked the child psychologist Professor Tanya Byron to investigate the impact the Internet was having on children. Her report made 38 recommendations for making the online world safe for children, including a call for voluntary regulation of websites.
A decade later, the government’s Internet safety strategy is only now in the process of developing a code of practice for social networks and, according to a recent report from the NSPCC [click here], fewer than half of Byron’s recommendations have been fully implemented. Byron has insisted: “The Internet is absolutely ubiquitous in children’s lives today, and it is much too late for a voluntary code for social networks. The Internet strategy must absolutely create a legally enforceable safety code to force social networks to keep children safe.”
Although children’s use of the Net is of particular concern, we are all at risk if the tech giants do not address the growing concerns about their services or governments and regulators do not force them to do so.
In the USA, the 2016 presidential election was influenced by Russian posters who created 80,000 Facebook posts that over a two-year period reached 126 million people.
In the UK, data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica is alleged to have helped the Leave.EU campaign win the Brexit referendum by reportedly harvesting data from UK voters’ Facebook profiles to help decide how to target them with tailored Brexit campaign messages.
We need to address these problems urgently but, if we do not, then a vision of what awaits us can be found in the best-selling novel titled “The Circle” by Dave Eggers [my review here].
In the course of the book, a tech company called the Circle develops one service after another that increasingly links and exposes information in all its forms, always presenting its innovations as offering a social good while step by step stripping away personal freedom and political accountability.
We have been warned.
For most consumers, the experience is one of faster and faster broadband – but some are still stuck in the slow lane, writes ROGER DARLINGTON.
IT’S TIME FOR A BROADBAND UNIVERSAL SERVICE OBLIGATION
Can you remember those early, exciting days when you moved from narrowband to broadband for your Internet connection? Instead of having to dial up each time, you were always on and, instead of a speed of as low as 28.8 kbps, you jumped to at least 128 kbps.
Once we had all learned to love broadband (something between 512 kbps and around 25 Mbits) using a technology called ADSL, we needed faster and faster speeds.
Soon we were talking of fast broadband (around 25-50 Mbps typically using advanced ADSL), then super fast (around 50-100 Mbps typically using fibre to the cabinet) and now ultra fast (around 100-300 Mbits. typically using fibre to the home or co-axial cable).
According to the latest data from the regulator Ofcom, as at November 2017 average broadband speeds in the UK are increasing significantly. Over the previous 12 months, average download speeds rose by 28% to 46.2 Mbps. Average upload speeds increased by 44% to 6.2 Mbps. The main driver of these increases was people upgrading to superfast services.
Although superfast broadband is available to 93% of UK premises, around two in five UK broadband households still subscribe to a standard ADSL service. Standard services averaged around 10 Mbit/s, whereas average speeds of superfast services were over 70 Mbit/s.
Broadband has now becomes an essential utility like water, gas or electricity, but so far nobody has an absolute right to have broadband, so the government has decided that it is time to introduce a new universal service obligation (USO).
But the new USO raises many questions, such as: what speed should it be? who will provide it? how will it be funded?
In July 2017, the government issued a consultation document on the idea of a broadband USO. In December 2017, it confirmed that it wanted everyone in the country to have access to a download speed of at least 10 Mbps by 2020. In April 2018, it said that the upload speed should be at least 1 Mbps.
Ofcom estimates that currently 1.1 million premises cannot receive the USO specification. By 2020, when the USO will be implemented, the scale of the problem will probably be much smaller on account of the various publicly-funded roll-out programmes.
But there will still be a sizable problem and the commitment is to provide the USO wherever the connection cost is less than £3,400.
For many months, BT was in discussion with the DCMS over an offer to provide a 10 Mbps USO at its own cost, but the agreement broke down because the offer was seen as anti-competitive.
So, in April 2018, the government laid a Statutory Instrument before Parliament, making Ofcom responsible for imposing USO conditions on whoever is designated the universal service provider.
The regulator will need to decide who will contribute to the fund that will pay for the USO and how a provider can recover any unfair net costs. It will need to ensure that the USO service is affordable to consumers and that acceptable quality standards are in place.
Ofcom will issue a consultation document in August 2018 and detailed regulations in 2019, so that by 2020 one or more universal service providers have been designated giving consumers the right to request a USO connection.
A variety of different technologies could provide the broadband USO: fibre to the premise, fibre to the cabinet, fixed wireless and mobile can all meet the proposed specification but, based on its current capabilities, satellite may not.
So next time you are frustrated because it is taking a while to download a piece of video, remember that some are still in the slow lane and it was not so long ago that we were all there.
Link: Government statement on broadband USO click here
Choosing a communications provider should not be simply a matter of price but also of service quality, writes ROGER DARLINGTON.
ARE YOU BEING SERVED?
Ever since competition was introduced into the communications marketplace in the early 1980s, there has been an obsession with price. But cheapest is not always best. And, especially as we depend so crucially now on our broadband and mobile, the quality of service that we receive is of vital importance.
Everyone who works in the sector – which includes BECTU/Prospect members – needs to be concerned about quality because it impacts jobs. And everybody who uses broadband and mobile - which is just about all of us now – needs to be more discriminating about which provider offers the best service quality.
In the past, it has been difficult to assess the necessary data in an intelligible format but, for the last couple of years, the regulator Ofcom has been publishing a yearly comparison of service quality. Unfortunately not enough people know this and look at the information.
What does the Ofcom data tell us?
Overall satisfaction among mobile customers (91%) is in line with that among current account customers (92%) and above that of gas (88%), electricity (88%) and landline customers (87%). However, satisfaction among broadband customers (80%) is below that of these other sectors. The sector should be worried that as many as two in five broadband customers are not happy.
Let’s look at how individual companies are performing in the judgement of their customers.
In the broadband market, overall satisfaction is highest with Plusnet (86%), Sky (83%) and Virgin Media (83%) and lowest with TalkTalk (72%). BT and EE both have a middling score of 79%.
When it comes to complaints to Ofcom per 100,000 subcribers, Sky does exceptionally well at just 29 but, at the other end of the scale, BT (115) and TalkTalk (113) do terribly.
Turning to the mobile market, overall satisfaction is highest with giffgaff (98%) and Tesco Mobile (97%) and lowest with Virgin Mobile (86%), but the spread is much narrower than for broadband providers.
As for complaints to Ofcom, Tesco Mobile has very, very few (3 per 100,000 subscribers) but Vodafone (48) and BT Mobile (47) score very badly, while EE (14) – owned by BT- does well.
Landline is not as important a service as it once was, but it is still vital, especially to older and vulnerable customers.
Overall satisfaction here is highest with EE (90%) and Sky (90%) while TalkTalk (82%) is again bottom of the ranking. BT is average at 88%.
In terms of complaints, Sky (26) is easily the best and TalkTalk (83) and the Post Office (83) are the worse. BT (65) is a bit above average.
The Ofcom data includes many more measures, but what will be clear from this brief survey is that no provider is brilliant across the board and no operator is terrible at everything (although TalkTalk does have a poor overall record).
Ideally we need an independent organisation that can provide a sensible weighing to the various measures (including cost) and then aggregate these into an overall rating to guide customers. Citizens Advice does this for energy companies and produces star ratings that it publishes once a quarter – although you would struggle to find this.
There is no comparable effort in the communications sector. Ofcom is not prepared to do it because it fears being challenged by the companies that it regulates. The Communications Consumer Panel (where I was a member for nine years) and the Consumer Forum for Communications (which I have chaired for the last three years) do not have the resources.
The Government recently published a Consumer Green Paper that asked whether we need a new consumer advocate for telecommunications users outside of Ofcom. I made a submission supporting the proposal and arguing that Citizens Advice was best equipped to take on the role if a funding stream could be provided.
Link: Ofcom's 2017 report on "Comparing Service Quality" click here
In his 100th and last column, ROGER DARLINGTON reflects on how much the Internet has changed in the 16 years that he has been contributing his views.
THE INTERNET AT A REGULATORY CROSSROADS
When in December 2002 I wrote my first column [click here] for what was then the union Connect, the Internet was not exactly new – it was created in 1969 and the web was launched in 1989 – but it was still used by a small proportion of the world’s population (two-thirds of all users were in North America and Europe), many of the most popular services today - such as Facebook and YouTube - did not exist, and there was massive excitement and enthusiasm for all things Net-related.
A decade and a half later, we could summarise the situation as many more users, many more uses, but many more concerns.
Today some 3.8 billion are on-line world-wide which is close to half the entire global population. But, of course, the national variations are still massive. In Iceland, over 98% is on the Net, whereas in Eritrea barely 1% is connected.
Furthermore there are substantial demographic variations. In Britain, where 99% of 16- to 34-year-olds are online, the 75-and-overs make up more than half of the 4.5 million adults who have never used the Internet.
What are all these people doing online?
According to The Statistics Portal, a minute on the Net sees 156M emails, 29M messages, 4M Google searches, 2M minutes of Skype calls, 1.5M Spotify songs, 350,000 tweets, 243,000 photos posted on Facebook, 87,000 hours of Netflix, 65,000 pictures put on Instagram, and 400 hours of video uploaded to YouTube.
Of course, not all parts of the web are viewed equally. There are nearly 2B websites in existence (including mine), but most are hardly visited. The top 0.1% of websites (roughly 5M) attract more than half of the world’s web traffic.
All this is immensely impressive and exciting but, over time, more and more worries have developed around the use of the Net. Individuals find that they are subject to harassment and fraud, companies are repeatedly hacked, governments face a form of cyber-warfare, and societies see a flood of fake news and attempts to undermine their democratic processes.
The tech giants still struggle to act quickly and effectively against illegal content, such as child abuse images or hate speech, and they seem confused about how to deal with harmful and offensive content, such as sexist, racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, and anti-Semitic material.
From 2000-2015, I spent six years as the first independent Chair of the Internet Watch Foundation that combats child abuse images online [for my Board reports click here]. At that time, I could not interest IWF members in moving beyond illegal content to thinking about harmful content.
In early 2016, I gave a speech at the head office of the communications regulator Ofcom on how the Internet could be regulated [for text click here], but harmful content was regarded as too difficult an issue for politicians and regulators to address.
How things have changed. In September 2018, Ofcom issued a 30-page discussion document with the title “Addressing harmful online content: a perspective from broadcasting and on-demand standards regulation” [click here].
Of course, difficult are issues involved: a balance has to be struck between free speech and the flow of ideas on the one hand and protecting users and communities on the other. Also there are substantial technical problems because of the volume of new material going online every day and the different cultures and laws around this global network.
Here in the UK, the Ofcom document is intended to inform a promised Government White Paper which should lead to legislation. Meanwhile Ofcom will hold a conference in the first part of 2019 for UK and international regulators that have remits and expertise in these issues. So watch this space …
Roger and out.