Digital economy meets dinosaur politics

Digital economy meets dinosaur politics

Summary: Digital citizens are disgusted at the way the UK parliament rushed Internet censorship provisions into law last night. The political establishment is out of touch with the rapid pace of change unleashed by the Internet.


If you thought the esteem of the UK parliament couldn't fall any lower after last year's devastating expenses scandal, then the passing of the Digital Economy Bill in a parliamentary process known as the 'wash-up' will have come as something of a shock. UK blogger Simon Deane-Johns sums up the disgust felt by the many digital citizens, whose fury drove #DEbill to become the top-trending Twitter hashtag worldwide this morning (see Techmeme coverage).

As fellow ZDNet blogger Zack Whittaker reported last night, a handful of MPs spent just two hours debating the bill before it was passed into law. PaidContent UK has a useful clause-by-clause summary of what the bill includes (and what was withdrawn at the last moment), but by far the most pernicious move was to include a clause that means consumers could lose their Internet connections and face other legal sanctions if it can be shown those connections have been used to breach copyright.

As opponents pointed out, this could be used by government and big business to suppress downloads of leaked material, and could lead to innocent subscribers being penalized by others using their Internet access without their knowledge. What's more, it won't catch hardcore freeloaders, who will simply find new ways to infringe without getting caught. TechCrunch UK's Mike Butcher writes today of the bill's nightmare of unintended consequences:

"In April last year, Sweden's internet traffic took a dramatic 30 per cent dip as the country's new anti-file sharing law came into effect ... But several months later ... accessing of illegally shared movies, TV shows and music simply recovered [with] one crucial difference. Much of the internet traffic was now encrypted. In other words, the very laws the entertainment industries had lobbied politicians to pass in order to protect their industry had created the even bigger headache of untraceable file sharing."

So why has parliament passed such a crass law? Before I explain, I must make some disclosure, as this topic combines two of my greatest passions. Normally, I simply make a commercial disclosure because I've spent the past decade writing about and working in Internet computing. Today, I also have to add a political disclosure, because I'm a paid-up, activist member of the UK's third-largest political party, the Liberal Democrats, whose MPs, I'm proud to say, voted against the bill last night. More on that later — and what happens next — but first let's take a look at the bigger backdrop to how last night came about.

The Digital Economy Bill is a classic example of what happens when society struggles to get to grip with change. On one side of the debate you have the established media businesses, who have been around for many years, pay large amounts of tax and employ thousands of people. So of course they have the ear of government — not only politicians like the business minister Peter Mandelson, but also the civil servants who advise them and draft the legislation. Content creators have genuine concerns, of course, but they would also prefer not to change a business model that's served them well in the face of technological disruption if they can help it, irrespective of the wider public good. It's up to politicians to take such bias into account when they make decisions.

On the other side of the argument you have a growing industry that doesn't have the same established presence, brings in less revenue and thus taxes and employs fewer people. Even though it can rapidly mobilize tens of thousands of people to email their MPs as happened in the past few days, it still has less influence over government policy because it simply doesn't have the same connections with ministers and civil servants. There's a culture clash, too. The Internet has collapsed distance and time, but politics still operates at a pre-Internet pace. Liberal Democrats, reacting to an earlier Twitter storm about the bill, updated their policy with an emergency motion at the party's spring conference last month, but that policy had last been reviewed in 2003, long before Twitter, YouTube and Facebook existed.

The Internet is changing society rapidly and politicians have to make more of an effort to keep up, because this industry is key to the future economic health of this country. It's as fundamental as canals, railways, roads and telecoms have all been in their formative years. That's why this bill is arousing such passion.

Given more time, sense may have prevailed, but then came the wash-up, a consequence of Gordon Brown going to the Queen earlier this week to call the long-awaited general election. That leaves just a week to finish off the outstanding parliamentary business, including the dreadful Digital Economy bill, before MPs fan out across the country to meet their electorate (many, especially those defending marginal seats, have already set off).

So what happens next? One consequence of the last-minute process is that, as PaidContent UK explains, the government did place the most pernicious provision to "see ISPs, at copyright holders' behest, block access to online services deemed to breach copyright" into a separate parliamentary process that means it won't be enacted until after the general election. So voters do have a chance to influence the future of this legislation depending on which party they support. There's a useful list here (and a pie chart) of the MPs that voted against the crucial third reading of the bill last night — these are the good guys. And here's a breakdown of what those numbers mean as a proportion of each party's representation in the Commons:

  • 29% of all Lib Dem MPs voted against the Bill (100% of those who voted)
  • 6% of all Labour MPs voted against the Bill (11% of those who voted)
  • 3% of all Tory [Conservative] MPs voted against the Bill (56% of those who voted)

As The Guardian's Charles Arthur concluded in his liveblog of last night's debate:

"The lack of engagement by the Tories ... may come back to haunt them if they win [the election]: it's going to cause all sorts of roadblocks for the digital economy. And it may come back to haunt them if there's a hung Parliament, since this won't be popular with the Lib Dems."

Topics: CXO, Browser, Government, Government US

Phil Wainewright

About Phil Wainewright

Since 1998, Phil Wainewright has been a thought leader in cloud computing as a blogger, analyst and consultant.

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  • "deemed" to breach copyright.

    I guess "deemed" can have a wide variety of interpretations.

    This is just more and more chipping away at our freedoms. 1984 will be
    here soon enough.
    Hatestone Johnson
  • RE: Digital economy meets dinosaur politics

    Lies and Damn Lies, In the States we have the public statements that the small businesses creates new jobs, that small businesses are the hope of the future as mega-manufacturing moves elsewhere. BUT the actions are to protect big business at the cost of small business and individual always. We lent/gave billions to banks & brokers who created a finacial disaster. Those same banks & brokers stopped lending to small businesses and "because we have a financial crisis."
    The Securities Exchange Commission has admitted that that sub-prime loans and a unrealistic real estate market combined with electronic trading caused the melt down. The derivative packages based on bad (sub-prime) loans are hard to comphrehend. If I offer you something where you will lose money, why would you buy lots of them thinking that creative accounting will make all those losses into a profit. If you still think that there are short term profits in stocks and bonds for the individual you like the Government missed the note. A company announces something that will cause the stock to increase in value and before you can dial the phone the big brokers have traded a thousand times and effectively stolen millions from the individuals they supposedly represent. The S.E.C. knows what is happening and has no idea how to govern this new electronic age. And we can't go back.
  • RE: Digital economy meets dinosaur politics

    The dinosaurs of the pre-internet-age publishing industry think that by lobbying the UK government for this law - and getting it - will put them back on the old gravy-train.
    Well, here's a prediction - no you will not!

    The UK has some of the most restrictive copyright/privacy/Internet-usage laws in Europe and where has it got them - NO WHERE! No big prosecutions, no let-up in the black market trade.
    Those old obese dinosaurs need to wake-up, get with the new technology, and PRICE THE CONTENT TO WHAT THE MARKET WILL MEET.
  • Manifesto please

    I am heartily sick of whinging journalists in technology columns who recount a select few facts from the larger problem, all of which and much more we have known for many years, whilst offering no insights into ways of solving the difficulties. Count yourself in that inactive party, and please cease using the label 'activist' until you have a manifesto with at least some thread of a solution and and an action plan, however draft!

    1. "The Digital Economy Bill is a classic example of what happens when society struggles to get to grip with change." So why not use your historical knowledge, technology skills and political clout to suggest the economics of a solution, the ecosystem for a solution and the necessary political actions to enact a solution?

    2. I have suggested to Hanchard, Foremski and others that a study of the transformation of the Gambling industry in the UK at the turn of the millenium q.v. would provide a good framework (if something of a microcosm) for restructuring the content-transmission-consumption model of a digital economy.

    The essence of the transformation was that the Government removed taxes on consumers altogether (think of that!), diverted some money to the sports on which consumers were gambling (content producers: UK racecourses in particular) and taxed the companies making the profits from gambling. Coupled with a relaxation in gambling laws this boosted consumption to an extent which replaced, indeed increased, profits diverted from the incumbent companies.

    3. What must be sold to the current middle-men, in the music and film industries particularly, is that if they made it easy for everyone to download anything cheaply from the Internet then the loss of the odd DVD sale would be more than offset by the massive downloading enabled by broadband. People would download many times more music and films than they could ever watch or listen to.
    A similar theme would work for popular software e.g. Photoshop. Instead of 6 billion pirated copies at no gain ADOBE could even accept 1$ per and make far more money.

    4. There are no technology problems. The problem is that money is being retained in gigantic multinationals instead of being diverted to build out the infrastructure and lower costs as technology advances.

    If the companies will not buy into a new model soon then an enlightened Government would legislate and fund OPLAN's. This would give the Telecomms. companies in particular a wake up call.

    The wishy-washy clause for media giants to work towards new business models will have no effect whatsoever: they will hang on until the bitter end. Let's point out to them that in all three previous communication revolutions the incumbents were destroyed ... and start the destruction soonest. Mr. Murdoch, you don't want to release SKY programmes? Well your broadcast license is revoked from 2012. The CEO of Setanta is looking for a new job we understand - please transfer your staff to him.

    Consumers have noted the repetition of 'three strikes' on themselves ... how about the same for intransigent corporates who won't work towards agreeing a new model?

    Please follow up with details of the Lib Dem Manifesto and action plan for the UK Digital Economy. It's easy to be in opposition ... the crunch comes when you are elected and have to act!!
  • The graph the record industry doesn't want you to see

    From The Guardian (

    "It?s record labels and not artists who are losing out to the internet. Artists have taken more revenue over the last five years, even as record sales have fallen. Those are the findings of study by the Times Labs blog.

    With the aid of a couple of charts, the blog argues that music artists are better off in a world with illegal filesharing. This makes sense: recorded music is a pretty good advert for live performances. It also explains why the BPI, which represents the recorded music side of the industry, has been pushing so hard for Government action against illegal filesharers.

    It?s in their interest but not necessarily the artist?s, whatever Lily Allen might believe. [..] Expect the record industry to continue to try to get its business model enshrined in legislation."