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Last Updated: Monday, 14 March, 2005, 15:09 GMT
Politicians start to get the net
Ballot boxes, BBC
The net will play a big part in the next election
Our politicians are taking the internet seriously at last, and Bill Thompson is looking forward to the arguments.

Last week the Conservative Technology Forum launched its grandly-titled 'Digital Action Plan' at the party's spring forum in Brighton.

It showed off its digital credentials by putting the photos of the launch onto the ultra-hip Flickr photo-sharing website.

The 16-page document makes interesting reading.

It calls for better scrutiny of government technology programmes, a serious rethink of the NHS National Programme for technology, a central "cyber-crime" helpdesk for the police and the proper use of online learning to provide teaching to students of all ages.

It also wants us all to have a choice of network providers and access to network connections fast enough to support interactive video.

When fast is slow

The main argument is that Britain is "trapped in the middle rank of digitally developed economies" and that our businesses are being held back as a result.

It's a view that is hard to deny. We may have good uptake of broadband, but it's not very fast. We may have made moves to e-government, but few people bother to use the services.

While politicians talk about the importance of the networked economy, the Prime Minister has never visited the government's own citizen's portal. And we don't teach our children how to use computers effectively or creatively.

Whether the policies and proposals themselves are any good - and there are some pretty dodgy plans out there - is less important than the fact that they are being proposed and discussed
The forum doesn't write party policy, so we can't be sure that a future Conservative government would take these proposals seriously, but it does at least show that the issues are being addressed within the party's policy-making machinery.

There are lots of things in it that I wouldn't agree with, like the call for SMEs to have easier access to the patent system, but it's reassuring to see these issues being raised and discussed by people who actually know what they are talking about.

The action plan isn't the only interesting work to come from the forum.

Earlier this year they looked at the way "broadband" is defined in the UK, and pointed out that the term "can as easily describe two tin cans and a connecting piece of string as a 10Mbps connection to the internet".

This means that claims that our market for broadband is up there with Hong Kong, South Korea or Japan are misleading - 128kpbs in Slough is hardly comparable to 40Mbps in Tokyo.

And they've also dived into the debate about intellectual property rights and how copyright law need to change to reflect our online world, in a report wittily entitled "March of the Spiders".

Close-up of seat in the House of Commons, BBC
Policy groups in parties are getting more net savvy
This is critical of the current 'notice and takedown' approach which allows publishers to request net service firms to remove websites that are claimed to infringe copyright, and questions the approach to database copyright taken in Europe. Both are significant issues.

Policy tools

It isn't just the Conservatives either. The Liberal Democrats has its own policy documents, and other parties are now taking the internet seriously when it comes to policy-making.

One of the interesting aspects of all of these discussions is that they start from the assumption that the internet is here, that it will be a core utility in our lives in future, just like gas, electricity and water, and that it is important for government to understand and manage its growing use.

Whether the policies and proposals themselves are any good - and there are some pretty dodgy plans out there - is less important than the fact that they are being proposed and discussed.

From how we get higher speed broadband to the need to rethink copyright, it seems that the net is going to be one of the things we will be arguing about in the run-up to the General Election.

And that has to be a good thing, whatever the outcome.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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