It’s time to talk about Digital Public Service Corporations

In Austerity Britain, nothing could be less fashionable or more politically unrealistic than proposing an idea that would cost a lot of public money. But I’ve never been especially fashion conscious, and some ideas are worth debating even when they are inconvenient, so I might as well say it: the world needs the modern equivalent of public service broadcasters. It needs them today, and it’s going to need them a lot more in the future.

“Now hold on there sonny,” you might say, “the world’s already full of public service broadcasters!”.  And, indeed, you’d be right – Public Service Broadcasters across the world have developed huge websites and torrents of apps. They get massive amounts of traffic, and in the best instances they serve their users really well.

But. Public Service Broadcasters are fundamentally storytellers. This is both their tremendous strength and their great blind spot when it comes to digital.

The BBC, for example, is a fantastic storyteller. It tells the story of today’s news, the story of sporting heroes, the story of tomorrow’s weather.  It tells fictional stories of Time Lords and cartoon animals that define our culture and help bind us together as a country. Having grown up in Britain I have the whole warm-and-fuzzy emotional relationship with the BBC that almost everyone here has. And it gets gigantic digital traffic, as well as large TV and radio audiences. It is safe to say that the BBC does stories as well as anyone, ever, including online.

But. The internet isn’t just about stories.

There are plenty of stories on the internet, but a huge part of the net is about tools and services and answers, not narratives. It’s about Skype and Gmail and Wikipedia. In my sector it’s about and At a lower level it’s about TLS and Django.

And there’s no getting away from the fact that now, as the Web turns 25, it doesn’t feel like the market is delivering everything people need from the net. It’s not doing a great job at preventing security problems like Heartbleed. It’s not doing a great job at providing services that aren’t subsidised by advertising, or that respect privacy very much. It’s not doing a great job at providing online spaces that are safe and respectful for women. It’s not doing a great job at providing technologies that the public sector or civil society can use without being at major risk of exploitation from suppliers.

I don’t know what a Digital Public Service Corporation should ultimately look like. I don’t know how big it should be, or what it should have as its mission, or even what country the first one should be set up in (Britain seems highly unlikely).

However, in a world in which huge amounts of our lives are mediated digitally, it just seems improbable that every single liberal democracy will conclude that every aspect of our digital lives will happily, permanently be delivered exclusively by transnational companies. History suggests that state intervention to produce a somewhat mixed economy is just more probable. It happened in broadcasting, it happened in research, it happened in industry. And the reasons never go away – politicians eventually come to feel that a market is failing for some reason, or that there are moral or social values that are not embedded in purely private solutions.

If there’s going to be a mixed economy, then there’s no point in avoiding the big questions. What are these new entities going to look like? How will they be regulated to stop them going bad, or smashing up healthy markets?  And, crucially, how are we going to persuade our fellow citizens that these things are worth paying serious money for?

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it takes decades, or if the process turns deeply political and ugly. But we have to start somewhere. Otherwise I’m not quite sure how we’ll ever end up with the web we want.

PS Thanks to Matt Jukes  and Adrian Hon for writing things that have pushed me to propose this unfashionably big-state idea. It feels thrillingly naughty.

PPS Updated SSL to TLS, sorry for being such a grandpa


  1. What you describe reminds me of the way Mozilla talks about its work, building tools and plumbing and mindsets for an open web. But should people be forced to pay tax for this? I don’t know. Remember BBC was conceived in particular historical moment. There wouldn’t be political support for it now if it didn’t already exist.

  2. I agree there’s a need for public journalism on the web. Someone needs to pay for quality journalism and I’m not convinced advertising revenue can fully fund it or that the right reader funding mechanisms can be created. That leaves a public levy for a public good.

    This seems more palatable at a national than at a local level, but why not imagine a local media licence fee paying for non-political, non-commercial quality web journalism.

    Sounds great. Not sure how we get there.

  3. I love a big idea, and this one is huge.

    So how do we get it to happen? Let’s not forget that we, the taxpayers, are already paying quite a lot for ineffective digital stuff (policing, public services, privacy etc) with some honourable exceptions. And as consumers, we’re paying out even more (password generators, anti-virus software, insurance against identity theft, parental guards etc).

    So there is money, it is just not being spent effectively on tackling the problems you outline, Tom.

    Can we construct a shadow body to approach Governments and consumers with a better ‘deal’? Can we divert taxpayers’ money to that body on a ‘payment by results’ basis? Can that body begin to pick off the big issues facing consumers, with those who could afford to pay and had something to gain covering the cost?

    Worth a try?