Culture secretary Maria Miller: 'Internet is the printing press for our age'

Culture secretary Maria Miller celebrated the internet as a "force for good" and "one of the great enablers for freedom of expression", at the Oxford Media Convention today, dubbing it "the printing press for our age". Read her full speech.

Maria Miller: secretary of state for culture, media and sport
Maria Miller: secretary of state for culture, media and sport

"This year is the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, and it is truly extraordinary – I think – that it was only such a short time ago that Sir Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues at Cern made that first thought connection that changed the world.

"For most of us, the internet is now an intrinsic part of our lives. And for your industry in particular, it has had and will continue to have a transformative impact. It is revolutionalising the business models for how content is created, shared and monetised."

The transformative impact the internet

"I want to reflect this afternoon on the transformative impact the internet has had for freedom of expression. Be that political, cultural or personal – the internet has given us all a voice and an audience.

"That is a powerful change. A force for good. A force for liberation. A force for democracy. We have to protect that. So I also want to talk about the responsibility we all have for nurturing this phenomenal technology – to ensure it remains a force that improves and enriches our lives.

"The responsibility we have for protecting the openness, innovation and security that underpin it.

"Open, so everyone can access the internet and enjoy the opportunities it provides. Innovative, so technological development can keep pace with human creativity. Secure, so that the infrastructure is robust and our data – whether personal or IP – is protected, with the most vulnerable kept safe.

"I am sure we have all been struck by the role the internet and social media has played in world affairs from the Arab Spring to bringing to light the horrors of the conflict in Syria.

"The internet has made the world accessible and given every individual the possibility of access to a global audience. The internet has provided enormous opportunities in delivering public services such as remote education and e-health, or even just renewing your car tax.

"Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) are opening up education to the world. Farmers in Ghana are saving time and money by using their smartphones to trade their products before they go to market. None of this would be possible without the internet.

"And it is not only at the high-end of human endeavour that the internet has changed our lives. For our children it is a fundamental part of their world.

"Fewer than one in 10 children in the UK do not use the internet at all. Most research and do their homework online. They watch TV or films, play games and use social media. The devices they use and location for these things may change, but the constant is the role of the internet.

"This is no different for adults. Many of us also choose to spend leisure time on social media, gaming with friends, downloading or streaming films and music or sharing our own content."

One of the great enablers of freedom of expression

"So for the avoidance of doubt, let me make my starting point clear – and perhaps government doesn't say this enough - the internet and all that it has done for us in the past, and all that I think it will do for us in the future is – overwhelmingly – a very good thing indeed.

"The internet is one of the great enablers for freedom of expression. It is the equivalent of the printing press for our age.

"This freedom is the cornerstone of British democracy. And it drives our creativity, our culture, our economy and equality.

"But freedom of expression doesn't just happen because the technology allows it. It is in our DNA. It is something that we must all actively nurture and protect through our actions and behaviour.

"We have a responsibility to work together to ensure that everyone can approach the internet excited about what we will learn next, not frightened of where it might lead us."

Online and off, the same rules apply

"So how should we approach this responsibility? The starting point, I would suggest, is a straightforward principle. The internet isn't a 'second life', it isn't something where different rules apply, where different behaviour is acceptable – it isn't the wild west.

"To put it simply, the rules that apply offline are the same rules that apply online.

"This is at its most clear when it comes to the law. If something is illegal offline, it is illegal online. We have laws in this country to protect our freedom … it is no different online.

"Whether it is images of child abuse or terrorist material, we will use the full force of the law, national and international, to take down that content and pursue the perpetrators.

"If you vilely insulted, or threatened to attack someone in person on the street, you do so expecting to be arrested and charged. The same already applies on social media.

"The legislation is already in place. And we have the guidelines by the attorney general on contempt of court - and the director of public prosecutions' on prosecutions involving social media communications – put together they present a strong and durable framework.

"As the recent imprisonment of two people for the abuse suffered by Caroline Criado-Perez shows, being online does not mean the law doesn't apply to you. And the law is being used. Last year, 2,000 people were prosecuted for sending electronic communications that were grossly offensive or menacing.

"In tackling child abuse online, the new National Crime Agency (NCA) is bringing greater resources to bear. Last month, Operation Endeavour resulted in 46 arrests across 14 countries, demonstrating the NCA's global reach.

"And yes, of course, there will be challenges of jurisdiction on the internet. But the internet is not the only space where working across borders presents legal challenges.

"There are many countries that have sought to regulate the internet in ways that we would not consider, but I think you'll agree that the debate has moved on from whether it can be done, to what is the responsible way for all of us – individuals, industry and state – to foster the web we want.

"In other areas we don't argue the law should not apply because it is difficult. And we will continue to work with other governments and law-enforcement agencies to bring the perpetrators of serious online crime to justice, where ever they are."

Take responsibility

"But society is not only governed by laws. We have social and ethical responsibilities for our own behaviour as well – online, just as we do offline.

"Freedom of expression, creativity, entrepreneurship – these are repressed, not enhanced, by failing to treat people fairly, or with respect.

"We want the reassurance of knowing we are protected online, but equally we must be responsible for our own actions. The veil of anonymity the internet provides may be valuable but does not give licence to insult, cheat or exploit.

"And the responsibility we take for our own and others' belongings equally apply online.

"You wouldn't leave your front door unlocked with a handy map pinned to it, showing where you kept your valuables. So why use the word "password123" as your online banking password?

"If you wanted to see a film or listen to a CD, you wouldn't sneak into a shop and steal it off the shelf, so why do the online equivalent and download it illegally?

"It's about good citizenship … as well as what's legal and what's not.

"And we already know that when the industry and government work together, we can make changes. We know that work can be done to enhance the protections that we see online. An example of this is the steps forward we have made with child internet safety.

"The work that ISPs [internet service providers] have done since last summer to deliver on filtering is a prime example of a responsible industry supporting consumers to have the confidence in the internet.

"And it works, not least because we've been able to demonstrate that the solutions to these problems are not always best arrived at through more regulation. But I am also clear that technological tools can only ever go so far.

"Parents have – and understand that they have – a responsibility to know what our kids are up to, and help guide those choices. As parents, we know that when it comes to our parental responsibilities there is no substitute for talking to our children.

"Industry must help us take responsibility and give us the information and tools to navigate this landscape. To allow us to make sensible choices about where we go and what we do and help to guide our children too.

"That is why I so welcome the industry's £25m a year awareness campaign to help parents keep their children safe online.

"Many of you are working at the cutting edge of these issues and realise you are facing more technical and legal challenges.

"The advent of new technology, from smartphones to tablets, is changing the way we access media content online – from news, to celebrity gossip, to our favourite TV shows.

"Different media are governed by different rules – we expect impartial news coverage on a TV news bulletin, but not so on social media, where people are actively seeking personal viewpoints.

"We expect traditional broadcast television to meet a gold standard of accuracy and quality, whereas when we view a user-generated video online we know to be more circumspect.

"But with people old and young alike increasingly able to access not only broadcast channels on their TV, but hundreds of YouTube channels, as well as videos on social media, in just a few presses of the family remote,  it can be unclear to consumers which standards apply and to parents what broadcasting controls apply, if any.

"It is important that viewers can be confident about what they are getting at the press of a button.

"This works both ways. If the viewer is confident, then businesses can be too, and that can only be a good thing, which is why so many of you – from the BBC to YouTube - are already active in signalling to consumers – for example, the age appropriateness of material.

"I think there is a responsibility to help make this clearer still."

Clarity about standards

"I would like industry and regulators to come together to assess how they can most effectively give consumers clarity about the standards that apply across different platforms, and how they complain if those standards are not met.

"That is why I have asked Ofcom to kick-start this work, and I look forward to seeing how that progresses. Transparent media standards will help deal with the world as it is today rather than the world pre-internet.

"Your industry is at the cutting edge too, of demonstrating how behaving responsibly online can be rewarded.

"The standards and sensibilities that the media industry brings to creating content on line – whether news, kids' entertainment or programming – is setting the bar for quality and driving consumer confidence online. Far from being a race to the bottom, the high standards of broadcasters become a valuable selling point for online content in the future.

"Brands such as the BBC are becoming an important navigation tool for consumers looking for sources of content they can trust, and I know many of you here have worked hard to develop your reputation and relationship with consumers.

"For instance, the work Channel 4 has done to create an award-winning data strategy that has allowed it to evolve its business model through a deeper understanding of its customer base, but with a "viewer promise" that gives viewers transparency and control over their data.

"This leads me onto the next area of challenge for industry.

"Confidence is vital if these new online business models are to work in the long term. And accepting [that] the responsibilities both consumers and industry have offline apply equally when we are online, is vital as we see these develop."

Data as the new currency

"Information – or data, if you prefer – is the currency of the internet. Part of what I'm talking about today – quite a large part, actually – is the need for all of us to have clarity about the impact of the choices we make. This includes choices we make about our personal data."

"Understanding the value we and others place on it, how we spend this currency, what we are being sold, and at what cost.

"Of course commercial broadcasters have been doing something similar for decades – viewers accept TV advertising as the trade for programmes they want. Personal data is the next evolutionary step.

"The explosion of data as currency is not a bad thing. It delivers tremendous choice to consumers, allows us to access a huge range of content free at the point of consumption, and provides a level of convenience we could not have dreamed of a few years ago.

"I think of the app that tells where the nearest bus stop is, which buses go there and when the next one will arrive. Amazing.

"But we must be intelligent consumers. We must understand the price we are paying for this extraordinary service. We've all experienced it. Ads for restaurants popping up that seem spookily close to where we are. Spotify or Amazon suggesting songs or books we might like. And we do!

"We need to recognise that a commercial transaction has taken place – that our details, location and preferences, have been bought and sold and that is the cost of the convenience we want.

"Using data intelligently has the capacity to transform how the public sector delivers services and reaches the most hard-to-reach groups, to drive medical research and inspire market-changing products and services – such as the work by Channel 4 I mentioned earlier.

"What's more, this virtual marketplace creates thousands of new jobs.

Openness, innovation and security

"But, I go back to the principles of openness, innovation and security. If we are going to reap the benefits that an open, innovative internet can deliver, we must have confidence that our engagement with it is secure.

"Data is a driver for growth and creativity. I believe that transparency is essential if consumers are to feel safe and empowered by the use internet, and the data that flows across it.

"Good progress is being made here. For example the Ad Choices self-regulatory work on transparency means consumers can now not only see which advertising networks use their data, they can opt out of targeted behavioural advertising if they wish.

"Just as TV advertising sits within a proportionate regulatory framework, so too must the use of personal data.

"We must continue to negotiate solutions. In the EU, we are negotiating a new data-protection framework which must reflect the reality and requirements of modern enterprise if they to deliver economic growth, promote the use of open data and protect citizens' rights."

"Let me conclude where I started, by saying that the internet is an incredible invention that has opened up our world.

"But we are wrong to say this is a different world, where different rules of personal behaviour apply. The opportunities an open, innovative and secure internet have given us are precious.

"We must not crush it with thoughtless, harmful behaviour, the naked pursuit of profit, or overly burdensome regulation. And I am confident that our approach – self-regulation first, regulation only where necessary – is the right one.

"I look forward to working with you to promote an environment that preserves what we value, both online and offline - freedom of expression, creativity and prosperity."


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