Radioactive assumptions in the Digital Economy Bill

If enacted, anti-file-sharing provisions will impose huge cost and huge danger without any guarantee of success or necessity. We deserve more rational laws

There are two major false assumptions behind the anti-file-sharing components of the Digital Economy Bill that are like two barely sub-critical lumps of uranium. Dangerous enough if considered separately, catastrophic if put together.

One is that file-sharing is an economic disaster that deserves to be prevented by the toughest measures possible. This line is indistinguishable from that held by the IP exploitation industries: it is not one widely held outside.

The other assumption is that with sufficient effort, those tough measures will work. Again, this is not a widely held view among those who may be asked to implement those measures.

Evidence of the weakness of the latter view comes today in our report on the potential effect of the bill on the mobile data industry. Providing an affordable, efficient and reliable cellular network is hard work and has kept the operators fully occupied: they have seen no reason to also monitor and log the intimate details of their users' data transfers, let alone to judicial standards. The bill would require this of them, at great cost and no benefit to them or their users.

However, great cost doesn't even begin to cover the question of imposing similar strictures on the rapidly increasing use of embedded mobile data — such as with the Amazon Kindle — anonymous pay-as-you-go SIMs, and services that amalgamate multiple different connections into bandwidth that can be distributed among multiple independent users.

As mobile data becomes cheaper, faster and more ubiquitous, attempts to rigorously monitor it and tie individual users to individual packets will fail — unless access is made so onerously restrictive that the industry is stifled. That is certainly possible, if we're prepared to contemplate state intervention equivalent to the Soviet approach of licensing photocopiers.

Alarmist conspiracy theory? Perhaps. But with the strange business of ACTA — the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, negotiated in high secrecy but reputed to impose draconian rules on over a billion people to match or exceed those proposed in the bill — it is hard to argue that these issues are receiving proper public debate.

Assuming the dangers of file-sharing and the necessity of defeating it at all costs will have extreme results. Pretending those results will not happen and ignoring the evidence that those assumptions are questionable are not rational acts. When we are dealing with matters of direct and pressing importance for the future of the digital economy, our lives online and protecting our freedoms from vested interests, rationality is the very least we should demand.