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Main article: Ofcom

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UK to toughen telecoms security controls to shrink 5G risks

22:49 | 22 July

Amid ongoing concerns about security risks posed by the involvement of Chinese tech giant Huawei in 5G supply, the UK government has published a review of the telecoms supply chain which concludes that policy and regulation in enforcing network security needs to be significantly strengthened to address concerns.

However it continues to hold off on setting an official position on whether to allow or ban Huawei from supplying the country’s next-gen networks — as the US has been pressurizing its allies to do.

Giving a statement in parliament this afternoon, the UK’s digital minister, Jeremy Wright, said the government is releasing the conclusions of the report ahead of a decision on Huawei so that domestic carriers can prepare for the tougher standards it plans to bring in to apply to all their vendors.

“The Review has concluded that the current level of protections put in place by industry are unlikely to be adequate to address the identified security risks and deliver the desired security outcomes,” he said. “So, to improve cyber security risk management, policy and enforcement, the Review recommends the establishment of a new security framework for the UK telecoms sector. This will be a much stronger, security based regime than at present.

“The foundation for the framework will be a new set of Telecoms Security Requirements for telecoms operators, overseen by Ofcom and government. These new requirements will be underpinned by a robust legislative framework.”

Wright said the government plans to legislate “at the earliest opportunity” — to provide the regulator with stronger powers to to enforcement the incoming Telecoms Security Requirements, and to establish “stronger national security backstop powers for government”.

The review suggests the government is considering introducing GDPR-level penalties for carriers that fail to meet the strict security standards it will also be bringing in.

“Until the new legislation is put in place, government and Ofcom will work with all telecoms operators to secure adherence to the new requirements on a voluntary basis,” Wright told parliament today. “Operators will be required to subject vendors to rigorous oversight through procurement and contract management. This will involve operators requiring all their vendors to adhere to the new Telecoms Security Requirements.

“They will also be required to work closely with vendors, supported by government, to ensure effective assurance testing for equipment, systems and software, and to support ongoing verification arrangements.”

The review also calls for competition and diversity within the supply chain — which Wright said will be needed “if we are to drive innovation and reduce the risk of dependency on individual suppliers”.

The government will therefore pursue “a targeted diversification strategy, supporting the growth of new players in the parts of the network that pose security and resilience risks”, he added.

“We will promote policies that support new entrants and the growth of smaller firms,” he also said, sounding a call for security startups to turn their attention to 5G.

Government would “seek to attract trusted and established firms to the UK market”, he added — dubbing a “vibrant and diverse telecoms market” as both good for consumers and for national security.

“The Review I commissioned was not designed to deal only with one specific company and its conclusions have much wider application. And the need for them is urgent. The first 5G consumer services are launching this year,” he said. “The equally vital diversification of the supply chain will take time. We should get on with it.”

Last week two UK parliamentary committees espoused a view that there’s no technical reason to ban Huawei from all 5G supply — while recognizing there may be other considerations, such as geopolitics and human rights, which impact the decision.

The Intelligence and Security committee also warned that what it dubbed the “unnecessarily protracted” delay in the government taking a decision about 5G suppliers is damaging UK relations abroad.

Despite being urged to get a move on on the specific issue of Huawei, it’s notable that the government continues to hold off. Albeit, a new prime minister will be appointed later this week, after votes of Conservative Party members are counted — which may be contributing to ongoing delay.

“Since the US government’s announcement [on May 16, adding Huawei and 68 affiliates to its Entity List on national security grounds] we have sought clarity on the extent and implications but the position is not yet entirely clear. Until it is, we have concluded it would be wrong to make specific decisions in relation to Huawei,” Wright said, adding: “We will do so as soon as possible.”

In a press release accompanying the telecoms supply chain review the government said decisions would be taken about high risk vendors “in due course”.

Earlier this year a leak from a meeting of the UK’s National Security Council suggested the government was preparing to give an amber light to Huawei to continue supplying 5G — though limiting its participation to non-core portions of networks.

The Science & Technology committee also recommended the government mandate the exclusion of Huawei from the core of 5G networks.

Wright’s statement appears to hint that that position remains the preferred one — baring a radical change of policy under a new PM — with, in addition to talk of encouraging diversity in the supply chain, the minister also flagging the review’s conclusion that there should be “additional controls on the presence in the supply chain of certain types of vendor which pose significantly greater security and resilience risks to UK telecoms”.

Additional controls doesn’t sound like a euphemism for an out-and-out ban.

In a statement responding to the review, Huawei expressed confidence that it’s days of supplying UK 5G are not drawing to a close — writing:

The UK Government’s Supply Chain Review gives us confidence that we can continue to work with network operators to rollout 5G across the UK. The findings are an important step forward for 5G and full fibre broadband networks in the UK and we welcome the Government’s commitment to “a diverse telecoms supply chain” and “new legislation to enforce stronger security requirements in the telecoms sector”. After 18 years of operating in the UK, we remain committed to supporting BT, EE, Vodafone and other partners build secure, reliable networks.”

The evidence shows excluding Huawei would cost the UK economy £7 billion and result in more expensive 5G networks, raising prices for anyone with a mobile device. On Friday, Parliament’s Intelligence & Security Committee said limiting the market to just two telecoms suppliers would reduce competition, resulting in less resilience and lower security standards. They also confirmed that Huawei’s inclusion in British networks would not affect the channels used for intelligence sharing.

A spokesman for the company told us it already supplies non-core elements of UK carriers’ EE and Vodafone’s network, adding that it’s viewing Wright’s statement as an endorsement of that status quo.

While the official position remains to be confirmed all the signals suggest the UK’s 5G security strategy will be tied to tightened regulation and oversight, rather than follow a US path of seeking to shut Chinese tech giants out.

Commenting on the government’s telecoms supply chain review in a statement, Ciaran Martin, CEO of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, said: “As the UK’s lead technical authority, we have worked closely with DCMS [the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] on this review, providing comprehensive analysis and cyber security advice. These new measures represent a tougher security regime for our telecoms infrastructure, and will lead to higher standards, much greater resilience and incentives for the sector to take cyber security seriously.

“This is a significant overhaul of how we do telecoms security, helping to keep the UK the safest place to live and work online by ensuring that cyber security is embedded into future networks from inception.”

Although tougher security standards for telecoms combined with updated regulations that bake in major fines for failure suggest Huawei will have its work cut out not to be excluded by the market, as carriers will be careful about vendors as they work to shrink their risk.

Earlier this year a report by an oversight body that evaluates its approach to security was withering — finding “serious and systematic defects” in its software engineering and cyber security competence.



UK Internet attitudes study finds public support for social media regulation

14:50 | 30 May

UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has published a new joint report and stat-fest on Internet attitudes and usage with the national data protection watchdog, the ICO — a quantitative study to be published annually which they’re calling the Online Nation report.

The new structure hints at the direction of travel for online regulation in the UK, following government plans set out in a recent whitepaper to regulate online harms — which will include creating a new independent regulator to ensure Internet companies meet their responsibilities.

Ministers are still consulting on whether this should be a new or existing body. But both Ofcom and the ICO have relevant interests in being involved — so it’s fitting to see joint working going into this report.

As most of us spend more time than ever online, we’re increasingly worried about harmful content — and also more likely to come across it,” writes Yih-Choung Teh, group director of strategy and research at Ofcom, in a statement. “ For most people, those risks are still outweighed by the huge benefits of the internet. And while most internet users favour tighter rules in some areas, particularly social media, people also recognise the importance of protecting free speech – which is one of the internet’s great strengths.”

While it’s not yet clear exactly what form the UK’s future Internet regulator will take, the Online Nation report does suggest a flavor of the planned focus.

The report, which is based on responses from 2,057 adult internet users and 1,001 children, flags as a top-line finding that eight in ten adults have concerns about some aspects of Internet use and further suggests the proportion of adults concerned about going online has risen from 59% to 78% since last year (though its small-print notes this result is not directly comparable with last year’s survey so “can only be interpreted as indicative”).

Another stat being highlighted is a finding that 61% of adults have had a potentially harmful online experience in the past year — rising to 79% among children (aged 12-15). (Albeit with the caveat that it’s using a “broad definition”, with experiences ranging from “mildly annoying to seriously harmful”.)

While a full 83% of polled adults are found to have expressed concern about harms to children on the Internet.

The UK government, meanwhile, has made child safety a key focus of its push to regulate online content.

At the same time the report found that most adults (59%) agree that the benefits of going online outweigh the risks, and 61% of children think the internet makes their lives better.

While Ofcom’s annual Internet reports of years past often had a fairly dry flavor, tracking usage such as time spent online on different devices and particular services, the new joint study puts more of an emphasis on attitudes to online content and how people understand (or don’t) the commercial workings of the Internet — delving into more nuanced questions, such as by asking web users whether they understand how and why their data is collected, and assessing their understanding of ad-supported business models, as well as registering relative trust in different online services’ use of personal data.

The report also assesses public support for Internet regulation — and on that front it suggests there is increased support for greater online regulation in a range of areas. Specifically it found that most adults favour tighter rules for social media sites (70% in 2019, up from 52% in 2018); video-sharing sites (64% v. 46%); and instant-messaging services (61% v. 40%).

At the same time it says nearly half (47%) of adult internet users expressed recognition that websites and social media platforms play an important role in supporting free speech — “even where some people might find content offensive”. So the subtext there is that future regulation of harmful Internet content needs to strike the right balance.

On managing personal data, the report found most Internet users (74%) say they feel confident to do so. A majority of UK adults are also happy for companies to collect their information under certain conditions — vs over a third (39%) saying they are not happy for companies to collect and use their personal information.

Those conditions look to be key, though — with only small minorities reporting they are happy for their personal data to be used to program content (17% of adult Internet users were okay with this); and to target them with ads (only 18% didn’t mind that, so most do).

Trust in online services to protect user data and/or use it responsibly also varies significantly, per the report findings — with social media definitely in the dog house on that front. “Among ten leading UK sites, trust among users of these services was highest for BBC News (67%) and Amazon (66%) and lowest for Facebook (31%) and YouTube (34%),” the report notes.

Despite low privacy trust in tech giants, more than a third (35%) of the total time spent online in the UK is on sites owned by Google or Facebook.

“This reflects the primacy of video and social media in people’s online consumption, particularly on smartphones,” it writes. “Around nine in ten internet users visit YouTube every month, spending an average of 27 minutes a day on the site. A similar number visit Facebook, spending an average of 23 minutes a day there.”

And while the report records relatively high awareness that personal data collection is happening online — finding that 71% of adults were aware of cookies being used to collect information through websites they’re browsing (falling to 60% for social media accounts; and 49% for smartphone apps) — most (69%) also reported accepting terms and conditions without reading them.

So, again, mainstream public awareness of how personal data is being used looks questionable.

The report also flags limited understanding of how search engines are funded — despite the bald fact that around half of UK online advertising revenue comes from paid-for search (£6.7BN in 2018). “[T]here is still widespread lack of understanding about how search engines are funded,” it writes. “Fifty-four per cent of adult internet users correctly said they are funded by advertising, with 18% giving an incorrect response and 28% saying they did not know.”

The report also highlights the disconnect between time spent online and digital ad revenue generated by the adtech duopoly, Google and Facebook — which it says together generated an estimated 61% of UK online advertising revenue in 2018; a share of revenue that it points out is far greater than time spent (35%) on their websites (even as those websites are the most visited by adults in the UK).

As in previous years of Ofcom ‘state of the Internet’ reports, the Online Nation study also found that Facebook use still dominates the social media landscape in the UK.

Though use of the eponymous service continues falling (from 95% of social media users in 2016 to 88% in 2018). Even as use of other Facebook-owned social properties — Instagram and WhatsApp — grew over the same period.

The report also recorded an increase in people using multiple social services — with just a fifth of social media users only using Facebook in 2018 (down from 32% in 2018). Though as noted above, Facebook still dominates time spent, clocking up way more time (~23 minutes) per user per day on average vs Snapchat (around nine minutes) and Instagram (five minutes).  

A large majority (74%) of Facebook users also still check it at least once a day.

Overall, the report found that Brits have a varied online diet, though — on average spending a minute or more each day on 15 different internet sites and apps. Even as online ad revenues are not so equally distributed.

“Sites and apps that were not among the top 40 sites ranked by time spent accounted for 43% of average daily consumption,” the report notes. “Just over one in five internet users said that in the past month they had used ‘lots of websites or apps they’ve used before’ while a third (36%) said they ‘only use websites or apps they’ve used before’.”

There is also variety when it comes to how Brits search for stuff online, and while 97% of adult internet users still use search engines the report found a variety of other services also in the mix. 

It found that nearly two-thirds of people (65%) go more often to specific sites to find specific things, such as a news site for news stories or a video site for videos; while 30% of respondents said they used to have a search engine as their home page but no longer do.

The high proportion of searches being registered on shopping websites/apps (61%) also looks interesting in light of the 2017 EU antitrust ruling against Google Shopping — when the European Commission found Google had demoted rival shopping comparison services in search results, while promoting its own, thereby undermining rivals’ ability to gain traffic and brand recognition.

The report findings also indicate that use of voice-based search interfaces remains relatively low in the UK, with just 10% using voice assistants on a mobile phone — and even smaller percentages tapping into smart speakers (7%) or voice AIs on connected TVs (3%).

In another finding, the report suggests recommendation engines play a major part in content discovery.

“Recommendation engines are a key way for platforms to help people discover content and products — 70% of viewing to YouTube is reportedly driven by recommendations, while 35% of what consumers purchase on Amazon comes from recommendations,” it writes. 

In overarching aggregate, the report says UK adults now spend the equivalent of almost 50 days online per year.

While, each week, 44 million Brits use the internet to send or receive email; 29 million send instant messages; 30 million bank or pay bills via the internet; 27 million shop online; and 21 million people download information for work, school or university.

The full report can be found here.



Online platforms need a super regulator and public interest tests for mergers, says UK parliament report

20:37 | 11 March

The latest policy recommendations for regulating powerful Internet platforms comes from a U.K. House of Lord committee that’s calling for an overarching digital regulator to be set up to plug gaps in domestic legislation and work through any overlaps of rules.

“The digital world does not merely require more regulation but a different approach to regulation,” the committee writes in a report published on Saturday, saying the government has responded to “growing public concern” in a piecemeal fashion, whereas “a new framework for regulatory action is needed”.

It suggests a new body — which it’s dubbed the Digital Authority — be established to “instruct and coordinate regulators”.

“The Digital Authority would have the remit to continually assess regulation in the digital world and make recommendations on where additional powers are necessary to fill gaps,” the committee writes, saying that it would also “bring together non-statutory organisations with duties in this area” — so presumably bodies such as the recently created Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (which is intended to advise the UK government on how it can harness technologies like AI for the public good).

The committee report sets out ten principles that it says the Digital Authority should use to “shape and frame” all Internet regulation — and develop a “comprehensive and holistic strategy” for regulating digital services.

These principles (listed below) read, rather unfortunately, like a list of big tech failures. Perhaps especially given Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s repeat refusal to testify before another UK parliamentary committee last year. (Leading to another highly critical report.)

  • Parity: the same level of protection must be provided online as offline
  • Accountability: processes must be in place to ensure individuals and organisations are held to account for their actions and policies
  • Transparency: powerful businesses and organisations operating in the digital world must be open to scrutiny
  • Openness: the internet must remain open to innovation and competition
  • Privacy: to protect the privacy of individuals
  • Ethical design: services must act in the interests of users and society
  • Recognition of childhood: to protect the most vulnerable users of the internet
  • Respect for human rights and equality: to safeguard the freedoms of expression and information online
  • Education and awareness-raising: to enable people to navigate the digital world safely
  • Democratic accountability, proportionality and evidence-based approach

“Principles should guide the development of online services at every stage,” the committee urges, calling for greater transparency at the point data is collected; greater user choice over which data are taken; and greater transparency around data use — “including the use of algorithms”.

So, in other words, a reversal of the ‘opt-out if you want any privacy’ approach to settings that’s generally favored by tech giants — even as it’s being challenged by complaints filed under Europe’s GDPR.

The UK government is due to put out a policy White Paper on regulating online harms this winter. But the Lords Communications Committee suggests the government’s focus is too narrow, calling also for regulation that can intervene to address how “the digital world has become dominated by a small number of very large companies”.

“These companies enjoy a substantial advantage, operating with an unprecedented knowledge of users and other businesses,” it warns. “Without intervention the largest tech companies are likely to gain more control of technologies which disseminate media content, extract data from the home and individuals or make decisions affecting people’s lives.”

The committee recommends public interest tests should therefore be applied to potential acquisitions when tech giants move in to snap up startups, warning that current competition law is struggling to keep pace with the ‘winner takes all’ dynamic of digital markets and their network effects.

“The largest tech companies can buy start-up companies before they can become competitive,” it writes. “Responses based on competition law struggle to keep pace with digital markets and often take place only once irreversible damage is done. We recommend that the consumer welfare test needs to be broadened and a public interest test should be applied to data-driven mergers.”

Market concentration also means a small number of companies have “great power in society and act as gatekeepers to the internet”, it also warns, suggesting that while greater use of data portability can help, “more interoperability” is required for the measure to make an effective remedy.

The committee also examined online platforms’ current legal liabilities around content, and recommends beefing these up too — saying self-regulation is failing and calling out social media sites’ moderation processes specifically as “unacceptably opaque and slow”.

High level political pressure in the UK recently led to a major Instagram policy change around censoring content that promotes suicide — though the shift was triggered after a public outcry related to the suicide of a young schoolgirl who had been exposed to pro-suicide content on Instagram years before.

Like other UK committees and government advisors, the Lords committee wants online services which host user-generated content to be subject to a statutory duty of care — with a special focus on children and “the vulnerable in society”.

“The duty of care should ensure that providers take account of safety in designing their services to prevent harm. This should include providing appropriate moderation processes to handle complaints about content,” it writes, recommending telecoms regulator Ofcom is given responsibility for enforcement.

“Public opinion is growing increasingly intolerant of the abuses which big tech companies have failed to eliminate,” it adds. “We hope that the industry will welcome our 10 principles and their potential to help restore trust in the services they provide. It is in the industry’s own long-term interest to work constructively with policy-makers. If they fail to do so, they run the risk of further action being taken.”



UK report highlights changing gadget habits — and our need for an online fix

18:07 | 2 August

A look back at the past decade of consumer technology use in the UK has shone a light on changing gadget habits, underlining how Brits have gone from being smartphone dabblers back in 2008 when a top-of-the-range smartphone cost ~£500 to true addicts in today’s £1k+ premium smartphone era.

The report also highlights what seems to be, at times, a conflicted relationship between Brits and the Internet.

While nine in ten people in the UK have home access to the Internet, here in 2018, some web users report feeling being online is a time-sink or a constraint on their freedom.

But even more said they feel lost or bored without it.

Over the past decade the Internet looks to have consolidated its grip on the spacetime that boredom occupied for the less connected generations that came before.

The overview comes via regulator Ofcom’s 2018 Communications Market report. The full report commenting on key market developments in the country’s communications sector is a meaty, stat and chart-filled read.

The regulator has also produced a 30-slide interactive version this year.

Commenting on the report findings in a statement, Ian Macrae, Ofcom’s director of market intelligence, said: “Over the last decade, people’s lives have been transformed by the rise of the smartphone, together with better access to the Internet and new services. Whether it’s working flexibly, keeping up with current affairs or shopping online, we can do more on the move than ever before.

“But while people appreciate their smartphone as their constant companion, some are finding themselves feeling overloaded when online, or frustrated when they’re not.”

We’ve pulled out some highlights from the report below…

  • Less than a fifth (17%) of UK citizens owned a smartphone a decade ago; the figure now stands at 78% — and a full 95% of 16-24 year-olds. So, yeah, kids don’t get called digital natives for nothin’
  • People in the UK check their smartphones, on average, every 12 minutes of the waking day. (‘Digital wellbeing’ tools clearly have their work cut out to kick against this grain… )
  • Ofcom found that two in five adults (40%) first look at their phone within five minutes of waking up (rising to 65% of the under 35s). While around a third (37%) of adults check their phones five minutes before lights out (again rising to 60% of under-35s). Shame it didn’t also ask how well people are sleeping
  • Contrary to a decade ago, most UK citizens say they need and expect a constant Internet connection wherever they go. Two thirds of adults (64%) say it’s an essential part of their life. One in five adults (19%) say they spend more than 40 hours a week online, up from 5% just over ten years ago
  • Three quarters (74%) of people say being online keeps them close to friends and family. Two fifths (41%) say it enables them to work more flexibly

Smartphone screen addicts, much?

  • Seventy-two per cent of adults say their smartphone is their most important device for accessing the Internet; 71% say they never turn off their phone; and 78% say they could not live without it
  • Ofcom found the amount of time Brits spend making phone calls from mobiles has fallen for the first time — using a mobile for phone calls is only considered important by 75% of smartphone users vs 92% who consider web browsing on a smartphone to be important (and indeed the proportion of people accessing the Internet on their mobile has increased from 20% almost a decade ago to 72% in 2018)
  • The average amount of time spent online on a smartphone is 2 hours 28 minutes per day. This rises to 3 hours 14 minutes among 18-24s

Social and emotional friction, plus the generation gap…

  • On the irritation front, three quarters of people (76%) find it annoying when someone is listening to music, watching videos or playing games loudly on public transport; while an impressive 81% object to people using their phone during meal times
  • TV is another matter though. The majority (53%) of adults say they are usually on their phone while watching TV with others. There’s a generation gap related to social acceptance of this though: With a majority (62%) of people over the age of 55 thinking it’s unacceptable — dropping to just two in ten (21%) among those aged 18-34
  • Ofcom also found that significant numbers of people saying the online experience has negative effects. Fifteen per cent agree it makes them feel they are always at work, and more than half (54%) admit that connected devices interrupt face-to-face conversations with friends and family — which does offer a useful counterpoint to social media giant’s shiny marketing claims that their platforms ‘connect people’ (the truth is more they both connect & disconnect). While more than two in five (43%) also admit to spending too much time online
  • Around a third of people say they feel either cut off (34%) or lost (29%) without the Internet, and if they can’t get online, 17% say they find it stressful. Half of all UK adults (50%) say their life would be boring if they could not access the Internet 
  • On the flip side, a smaller proportion of UK citizens view a lack of Internet access in a positive light. One in ten says they feel more productive offline (interestingly this rises to 15% for 18-34 year-olds); while 10% say they find it liberating; and 16% feel less distracted

The impact of (multifaceted and increasingly powerful and capable) smartphones can also be seen on some other types of gadgets. Though TV screens continue to compel Brits (possibly because they feel it’s okay to keep using their smartphones while sitting in front of a bigger screen… )

  • Ofcom says ownership of tablets (58% of UK households) and games consoles (44% of UK adults) has plateaued in the last three years
  • Desktop PC ownership has declined majorly over the past decade — from a large majority (69%) of households with access in 2008 to less than a third (28%) in 2018
  • As of 2017, smart TVs were in 42% of households — up from just 5% in 2012
  • Smart speakers weren’t around in 2008 but they’ve now carved out a space in 13% of UK households
  • One in five households (20%) report having some wearable tech (smart watches, fitness trackers). So smart speakers look to be fast catching up with fitness bands

BBC mightier than Amazon

  • BBC website visitor numbers overtook those of Amazon in the UK in 2018. Ofcom found the BBC had the third-highest number of users after Google and Facebook
  • Ofcom also found that six in ten people have used next-day delivery for online purchases, but only three in ten have used same-day delivery in 2018. So most Brits are, seemingly, content to wait until tomorrow for ecommerce purchases — rather than demanding their stuff right now

What else are UK citizens getting up to online? More of a spread of stuff than ever, it would appear…

  • Less general browsing/surfing than last year, though it’s still the most popular reported use for Internet activity (69% saying they’ve done this in the past week vs 80% who reported the same in 2017)
  • Sending and receiving email is also still a big deal — but also on the slide (66% reporting doing this in the past week vs 76% in 2017)
  • Social media use is another popular but slightly less so use-case than last year (50% in 2017 down to 45% in 2018). (Though Twitter bucks the trend with a percentage point usage bump (13% -> 14%) though it’s far less popular overall)
  • Instant messaging frequency also dropped a bit (46% -> 41%)
  • As did TV/video viewing online (40% -> 36%), including for watching short video clips (31% to 28%)
  • Online shopping has also dropped a bit in frequency (48% -> 44%)
  • But accessing news has remained constant (36%)
  • Finding health information has seen marginal slight growth (22% -> 23%); ditto has finding/downloading information for work/college (32% -> 33%); using local council/government services (21% -> 23%); and playing games online/interactively (17% -> 18%)
  • Streaming audio services have got a bit more popular (podcasts, we must presume), with 15% reporting using them in the past week in 2017 up to 19% in 2018. Listening to the radio online is also up (13% -> 15%)
  • However uploading/adding content to the Internet has got a bit less popular, though (17% to 15%)

One more thing: Women in the UK are bigger Internet fans than men.

Perhaps contrary to some people’s expectations, women in the UK spend more time online on average than men across almost all age groups, with the sole exception being the over 55s (where the time difference is marginal)…



UK broadband giant BT agrees to legal separation from pipes-controller, Openreach

13:48 | 10 March

Startups in the UK will be hoping for better performance from the local broadband market after telecoms regulator Ofcom agreed a deal with the country’s largest broadband provider, BT, to legally separate Openreach: aka the division of BT that builds and maintains the broadband infrastructure.

It’s not a full structural separation — as some have called for — but is a step further than the functional separation imposed by the regulator just over 10 years ago. Under the new deal Openreach will still be owned by BT but will be more independent, gaining its own management staff, an independent board and directly employing its circa 32,000 staff.

Ofcom believes this legal separation will allow Openreach to develop “its own distinct organisational culture” as a BT-owned company vs just being a division of the telco giant. And although BT will still be setting Openreach’s overall budget, the decisions on how the money is allocated will be taken independently of the telco.

The main hoped for outcome is increased investment in broadband infrastructure and better access for rivals to BT’s networks. Competitors (and consumers) have long complained the telco has dragged its feet about investing in the network in order to protect its own bottom line — leaving UK broadband consumers to suffer slower speeds and higher prices than they might otherwise.

BT does not own and operate the only broadband network in the UK, but given its long history and former status as a monopoly supplier of the national telephone service it does have the largest network. Meanwhile rivals that have built their own broadband networks — such as cable provider Virgin Media — have tended to concentrate on more densely populated regions, leaving large areas of the country where the only choice for broadband is to use BT’s pipes.

There’s added significance to the separation because BT does not just control fixed line broadband either; just over a year ago its $19BN acquisition of a major UK mobile operator, EE, was cleared by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority — bringing the telco back into the mobile market as a dominant player.

In a statement commenting on today’s deal, Ofcom’s CEO Sharon White said: “This is a significant day for phone and broadband users. The new Openreach will be built to serve all its customers equally, working truly independently and taking investment decisions on behalf of the whole industry — not just BT.”

How significant the arrangement will prove remains to be seen, of course. And despite the regulator’s upbeat sentiments, the very large expensive of laying full fiber to the home/premise — aka the fixed line broadband installation that supports the highest broadband speeds, vs alternatives such as fiber to the cabinet (which BT has preferred) — means the telco will, in practice, still exert considerable control on Openreach’s ability to ramp up broadband investment, given its continued hold on the purse strings.

Without the ability to significantly increase investment, Openreach will be unable to significantly expand access to the fastest fixed line broadband speeds — so it’s not clear that a legally independent Openreach will be as radically transformative for the national broadband landscape as some might wish. (As of last August less than 780,000 UK homes were estimated to have access to BT’s full fiber to the premise broadband product, which supports speeds of around 300Mbps and is slated to rise to 1Gbps.)

The deal with Ofcom does mean Openreach will be obliged to consult formally with customers such as Sky, TalkTalk and Vodafone on large-scale investments. So rivals should be able to exert more influence on the direction of infrastructure travel.

Ofcom also notes there will be “a ‘confidential’ phase during which customers can discuss ideas without this being disclosed to BT Group, as well as further protections for confidential customer information” — but again, it remains to be seen how that works in practice.

The regulator adds that it will also be monitoring the new model “to ensure it is effective”. So there’s always the chance that BT will face further action in future — albeit regulatory intervention timescales to date in this space suggest BT will have a fair amount of breathing space before having to worry about further intervention.

Ofcom had previously threatened to resort to EU regulators if BT would not agree changes to how Openreach operates — but securing a voluntary deal with BT is by far the faster route to achieving at least some change. (Not least given the added complication of Brexit.)

The UK government also finally put out its long awaited digital strategy last month — which includes a commitment for a universal service obligation for broadband (with a floor of 10Mbps connection). BT has previously said it is ready to fund the USO itself, although it wanted an agreement to be reached with Ofcom before starting work — so today’s deal paves the way for movement on that front.

A basic floor of 10Mbps by 2020 isn’t going to excite the cutting edge of UK tech. But closing some broadband blackspots should at least raise the overall addressable market for most digital services.



UK report finds rising digital privacy concerns

17:41 | 21 April

A comprehensive study of Brits’ usage of and attitudes to digital media, conducted annually by telecoms watchdog Ofcom, suggests there is growing concern among web and app users about the privacy of their personal data.

The latest study, published today and based on responses gathered in 2015 — the tenth year the research has been carried out — notes that concerns about media among users are “broadly unchanged” since 2013, but does flag up a rise in concern among app users specifically about what’s being done with their personal data.

According to the research, three in ten (28%) of those who use apps now have concerns, compared to two in ten (20%) in 2013 — with security/fraud or privacy (20%) being the most common concern.

The researchers also found evidence of what they dub “added caution” among Internet users when it comes to sharing personal information online over the past 10 years — such as increased concern about giving out a home address online.

Focusing on more current attitude shifts, Ofcom says there has been a specific rise in ‘privacy consciousness’ since 2013, which appears to be leading to decreasing willingness to share almost all types of personal data online.

From the report (emphasis mine):

Nine in ten (91%) internet users say they ever (always, often or sometimes) give the minimum amount of personal information required online, with over half of those aged 55-64 (54%) and aged 65+ (61%) citing that they always give the minimum.

More users say they would never provide their credit or debit card details (21% vs. 13% in 2013) or their mobile number (26% vs. 17% in 2013) because of security concerns.

Furthermore, the percentage who are happy to provide personal details online has decreased for all types asked about except for email.

Six in ten Facebook users say they have changed their privacy settings to make them more private, while seven in ten (72%) say they only share their photos with friends. ‘Friends only’ was also cited by two-thirds of users in the case of sharing opinions about people, places or the latest news stores (66%), their real name (64%), and their current location (64%).

Despite evidence of increased caution in online personal data sharing, Ofcom also found that Internet users in 2015 were more likely than in 2013 to say they don’t read website terms and conditions or privacy statements at all (up from 21% to 26%).

But frankly who can blame them. As we’ve said before, T&Cs/EULAs are designed to be as opaque and impenetrable as possible in order to encourage people not to read them.

Moreover, clicking ‘I do not agree’ on T&Cs is the fastest way not to get to use a service — providing another disincentive for web users to discover what devils lurk in the detail. When the standard digital transaction is ‘your data for the service’ then users are effectively being strong-armed into blindly clicking ‘I agree’.

Yet Ofcom’s research suggests that personal data trade-off is sitting increasingly uneasily with Brits, given rising concerns about what their data is being used for — and users’ attempts to minimize the amount of data they hand over.

The Ofcom report did also find that a majority of Brits (68%) say they are happy to provide personal information online to companies so long as they get what they want (i.e. access to a particular digital service). But perhaps that sort of happiness is best characterized as ignorance is bliss.  

And with digital privacy and security issues increasingly in the media spotlight, thanks to the 2013 Snowden revelations disclosing the extent of government mass surveillance programs — which in turn has led more companies to seek to properly lock down user data via strong encryption (and very public spats such as the recent Apple vs FBI case) — it is arguably becoming harder for web users to be ignorant of data security concerns.

Hence, perhaps, indications that even the famously laissez-faire Brits are becoming a bit more concerned about murky goings on with their data.

Rising privacy concerns are also perhaps an inevitable case of maturing usage of online services over the past decade, as the hidden implications/risks of sharing too much data inevitable becoming more apparent as time goes by, with every fresh hack and data breach.

Whatever the cause of Brits’ growing concerns there’s little doubt that security and privacy are areas ripe for startup innovation — thanks to a growing appetite for users to under- rather than over-share. No wonder Facebook is worried.

You can read the full Ofcom report, which also tracks usage of social media, device types and communication methods, here.

Featured Image: Jasni/Shutterstock



U.K. Kids Increasingly Credulous Online, Finds Ofcom

15:46 | 20 November

While there has been high profile U.K. government backing for furnishing the nation’s youth with digital skills in recent years, including a requirement in the English national curriculum to start teaching coding to primary age children, new research from comms industry regulator Ofcom suggests a parallel push to teach kids to be much better critical thinkers in our information-overloaded era is also desperately needed.

As it stands, a growing segment of the nation’s youth is far too credulous when it comes to the media they are consuming online, with Ofcom finding that British kids sometimes lack the understanding to decide whether the digital content they are viewing is true or impartial.

Its latest media use and attitudes report, which surveyed the views of U.K. children and parents in 2015, charts a rise in trust in online information among kids, with nearly one in ten of eight- to 15-year-olds apparently believing the information they encounter on social media websites and apps is “all true” — a doubling of the rate from last year’s report.

In one sense this is hardly surprising, in an era of increasingly blurred lines dividing editorial content from marketing and advertising. Not to mention the systematic appropriation of user generated content by the likes of giant ad-powered social media platform businesses, such as Facebook, to use as a trusted backdrop in order to dripfeed advertising to users.

But all the more reason, then, to teach kids to be more critical about the digital information they are being fed. Not that this is something the government appears to be prioritizing. Rather it continues to focus attention on the needs of digital businesses, such as funding free online courses teaching the kind of skills tech employers seek — such as social media marketing training. Media literacy? Not so much.

Incredibly Ofcom’s research found that one in five online teens (twelve- to fifteen-year-olds) believe information returned by a search engine such as Google or Bing must be true. Yet only a third are able to identify paid-for adverts within these search results.

Ofcom also found that U.K. kids are increasingly turning to YouTube — another platform owned by ad giant Google — to seek out “true and accurate” information about the goings on in the world. Nearly one in ten (eight per cent) of online kids identified YouTube as their preferred choice for this kind of info, up from just three per cent in 2014.

Yet only half of the 12- to 15-year-olds who watch YouTube are aware that advertising is the main source of funding on the site, and just under half are aware that video bloggers can be paid to endorse products or services.

Truly we are living in a golden age for marketing and misinformation.

The research also suggests the nation’s youth is generally becoming more comfortable with the notion of sharing personal information online — again, hardly a surprise given how they are being groomed to do so by the social media platforms that rely on user generated content to power their businesses.

Ofcom found that fewer teens than last year’s study would not want anyone to see their content details; location; info about what they are doing; and photos and videos from being our with their friends.

That said, the research also found teens are increasingly stating they want this type of personal information sharing to be with their friends only — suggesting growth of a more nuanced position on privacy, such as perhaps kids preferring the more bounded info sharing enabled by messaging apps, for instance, vs the broader social sharing platforms where their parents may also be present.

The full Ofcom media use and attitudes report can be found here.

Featured Image: Goodluz/Shutterstock



U.K. Web Users Now Prefer To Do It With Smartphones

14:26 | 6 August

U.K. web users now see their smartphone as the most important device for getting online, overtaking the previous most popular device, the laptop, according to a study of Brits’ digital habits.

The study found that a third (33 per cent) of U.K. Internet users now view their smartphone important device for going online, compared to 30 per cent who are still sticking with their laptop.

The finding comes from U.K. telco regulator Ofcom’s 2015 Communications Market Report — a serious stat-fest for those wanting to understand Brits’ digital habits.

Ofcom says the smartphone preference represents a “clear shift” on last year’s report when the proportion turning to their phones first was closer to a fifth (22 per cent), and a full 40 per cent still preferred their laptop.

Two-thirds (66 per cent) of people in the U.K. now own a smartphone, with Brits’ using their mobiles for nearly two hours per day.

Ofcom attributes the rise of ‘smartphone-first’ web use to increasing uptake of faster (4G/LTE) mobile networks — noting that 4G subscriptions leapt up last year from a base of 2.7 million to 23.6 million by the end of the year.

EE was the first U.K. carrier to launch LTE, back in October 2012, with the other three main carriers, O2, Vodafone and Three, getting into the game over the course of 2013. The U.K.’s carrier market has since seen some changes, with EE acquired by former mobile network operator BT, and a spot of carrier consolidation as Three bought O2.

A few other interesting observations from the report…

  • 4G driving mobile usage: Brits with 4G/LTE devices are doing more generally with their smartphones than those without 4G — including more shopping, banking, watching TV and video, face-to-face and VoIP calls, sending more photos and video via text, and more IMing. tl;dr: faster is better
  • Smartphones still mean comms: Despite multifaceted capabilities, Brits use their smartphones mostly to chat — with almost three-quarters (72 per cent) of the time spent on a smartphone going on communications activities, including text messages, email, social networking, IM and calls (voice or video)
  • Middle age smartphone surge: Smartphone ownership in the 55- to 64-year-old age group — which obviously still lags well behind the youth age-group — has nonetheless more than doubled since 2012, rising from a fifth (19 per cent) to a majority (50 per cent)
  • Tablets in the majority: More than half of UK households (54 per cent) now have a tablet, rocketing up from just 2 per cent back in 2011
  • TV still the most watched screen: Brits still spend more time on average watching TV than using their phones: 3 hours 40 mins oggling the box vs 1 hour 54 mins eyeing phone screens. Laptop/PC use is an average of 1 hour 9 mins. However the amount of time Brits are spending watching TV continues to fall, dropping for the second consecutive year
  • Social norms under pressure: A majority (54 per cent) of Brits think it’s rude to use a phone during dinner, yet close to a majority (42 per cent) admit to doing exactly that. Meanwhile, a third (34 per cent) of adults check their phones within five minutes of waking up, along with half (49 per cent) of young people aged 18-24. So basically ‘good morning darling, now let me just check if anyone liked my Facebook status update overnight…’
  • Younger Brits flirt with more types of social media: Young adults aged 16-24 use a more extensive breadth of social media services and are adopting newer sites and services such as Twitter (40 per cent), WhatsApp (37 per cent), YouTube (32 per cent), Instagram (35 per cent), Snapchat (26 per cent), Tumblr (8 per cent) and Vine (4 per cent). While a fifth (19 per cent) of website users aged 12-15 cited Snapchat as their most recent social media addition. Still, Facebook remains used by almost all U.K. adults aged 16+ (97 per cent), and close to half (48 per cent) say they only use Facebook
  • Google vs Facebook: Google’s services were the most-visited by the U.K. digital audience, with 46 million visitors in March 2015, but people spent more time on Facebook’s properties than Google’s (51 billion minutes vs 34 billion minutes)
  • Netflix vs Amazon Prime: Netflix subscriptions in the U.K. have grown from zero at launch in 2012 to 4.4 million households. While Amazon Prime has 1.2 million subs

You can view Ofcom’s full 2015 report here (pdf).



U.K. Push For Better Broadband For Startups

13:29 | 25 June

U.K. telecoms regulator Ofcom has called for more to be done to improve broadband services for startups and SMEs, publishing a report assessing the problem and setting out an action plan to improve broadband provision for businesses with under 250 employees.

Just yesterday, during an event focused on pro-startup city government policymaking, Rohan Silva, former senior policy adviser to the U.K. Prime Minister and co-founder of the Second Home co-working space in East London, was joking about having to ‘beg, borrow and steal’ to procure a 2Gbps broadband connection for the co-working space.

There’s no doubt that getting fast fibre broadband remains a pain point for U.K. startups, even in the epicenter of London’s ‘Tech City’. And even where fibre is available, the time it takes to get broadband installed can be another frustration.

Ofcom said today it has secured agreements from three of the largest U.K. ISPs, BT, TalkTalk and Virgin Media, to work on a new Code of Conduct for business broadband services.

There is already a U.K. Code for consumer broadband services, which requires providers to give an accurate estimate of broadband speeds to a customer prior to installation; fix technical problems that might reduce speed; and enables customers to exit a contract if speeds remain below a minimum level.

Ofcom says the business broadband Code is expected to cover similar areas but notes it may need some additional tailoring for SMEs and startups — such as offering commitments relating to upload speeds as well as download speeds. It’s unclear if it will offer any commitments on reducing the time it takes to get a broadband line installed. The regulator is aiming to publish the Code this fall.

Ofcom is also actively looking at fibre broadband coverage for SMEs, noting that in June last year only 56 per cent of SME premises had access to superfast broadband, vs 75 per cent of all UK premises.

The government is continuing to invest in expanding broadband coverage but Ofcom says it’s concerned not all SMEs will benefit under current industry and government plans, citing analysis that suggests that by 2017, when 95 per cent of all premises are due to have access, almost a fifth (18 per cent) of SMEs “may still not be able to receive superfast broadband”. Today it’s recommending the government sets explicit targets for business broadband coverage to ensure SMEs aren’t left lagging behind.

It also wants SMEs to have the option to be able to pay for faster fault repairs — something that Openreach offers but which not all broadband providers offer to their business customers.

Earlier this month Ofcom introduced new rules making it easier for SMEs of less than 10 employees (and consumers) to switch broadband providers over BT’s network by only having to deal with their new supplier.



UK Regulator Sets Out Priorities For Growing The Internet Of Things

15:52 | 27 January

IoT The U.K.’s telecoms regulator Ofcom has identified four areas it plans to prioritize in order to support the development of the Internet of Things, after taking input from various industry “stakeholders” last year. Read More


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