Houses of Parliament - digital charter

Piracy, privacy and the Digital Charter

01 March 2018 • William Bowes, general counsel

OpenAthens 2018 Conference opening keynote speaker, William Bowes, discusses the recently launched Digital Charter and what it means for publishers. William Bowes is director of policy and general counsel at The Publishers Association

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.

Digital Charter - key principles

The Digital Charter is 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
  • people should respect personal data and use it appropriately
  • protections should be in place to help keep people safe online, especially children
  • we must protect the same rights that people have offline as they do online
  • we must fairly share the social and economic benefits brought by new technologies

New access models

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, publishers cannot generate and provide quality content for free. Most publishers argue that access to content needs to be controlled to ensure that users pay for it. Without a secure model that ensures professional content retains its value, the future of publishing is threatened.

Publishers want to bring content to as many people as possible, but we also need to get paid for what we do. The key for us is creating smooth and user-friendly access, requiring 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.


Members of the Publishers Association are concerned about piracy and theft of intellectual property (IP). So the charter’s promise to protect against this is a welcome one. However, it is very tricky to enforce and will need cooperation between government, enforcement agencies and the big internet companies.

Wider implications

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. For example, if exceptions around educational content become too broad they could undermine the IP value of any academic or scientific research paper. Many scholarly publishers may not survive if forced to offer all their content for free.

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

Ahead of the conference, we will talk 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.

Future laws will get written over the next three to five years. 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.

Photo by Marcin Nowak on Unsplash

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