Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How not to pass a law

Lord Can't-Mind-His-Own-Business-For-Just-Five-Bleeding-Minutes Mandelson is back in the headlines, now proposing a "Digital Economy Bill" that, apparently, must be passed right now, not in five months' time after the election, or else Britain will fall apart. Wales will collapse into the Irish Sea, Scotland will declare independence and form a union with Somalia - or worse, France - while London degenerates into a barren wasteland stalked by gangs of feral children preying on the flesh of tourists. I paraphrase slightly, but it's certainly urgent that Mandy gets his way.

And what he wants from Santa is legislation to, among other things, cut off internet users who download stuff they don't have the right to.

Now, as an aim, I have a deal of sympathy with that. Illegal downloaders are a pain in the itinerant. Not only do they score for free all that content that the rest of us are paying good money for, thus upping the price for we poor saps who pay it; they also clog up the Internet while doing it, thus making my (legal) downloads run like a three-legged donkey. Climbing a stairwell.

And Mandy's proposal - ISPs to write warning letters to alleged offenders - is not unreasonable. Crucially, the letters are to be sent at the complainants' expense. That's a positive step, putting the burden of Being Serious in the right place. It gives "rights holders" (gods, how I hate that phrase) a much-needed incentive to think twice before simply spamming everyone whose IP number shows up in a server log.

Now, naturally enough, the ISPs are kicking up a fuss. It's all very well Big Content paying for the letters (they say), but what you're talking about is putting in place technical measures and procedures that are far from simple, and that's going to cost us real money. Being reasonably savvy in the ways of PR, they don't phrase it quite like that; they say it will cost the consumer money. Specifically, about £25 per broadband connection.

Obviously, the ISPs want money. They don't care who it comes from, and they think they see a chance to grab it from the "content providers" rather than directly from their own customers. (Of course the consumer ends up paying it either way. Just through different channels.)

What bothers me here is the lack of honest debate. The "Digital Britain" report was published six months ago, Mandy's legislative proposals one month ago, and he wants them passed into law in less than six months.

That's just silly. The questions involved here are not questions of dark sorcery or byzantine banking practices; they're simple moral questions, which any reasonable person can understand. Given time, you could come to a consensus that people would accept. You don't have to impose it by fiat from above. Democracy could actually work here, if only you gave it the chance.

I've already outlined my reasons for disliking digital freeloaders. Mandy's proposals for dealing with them answer some of the standard civil-liberties complaints. What's left is, to a large extent, whipped up by the two industries - ISPs and content owners - both of whom stake out ridiculous positions in the hope that the inevitable "compromise" is enough to ensure diamond-encrusted pensions to their great-grandchildren. Given time, we could hear some worthwhile points put to them:
ISP: "Why should we spend money to support someone else's business?"
Me: "Because your business benefits directly from theirs. How many fewer broadband subscriptions would you sell, if people couldn't download copyrighted content?"
Copyright Holders: "Too right! These pirates are costing us billions!"
Me: "And you, just stop it. Stop stealing my culture and trying to sell it back to me. Stop trying to resell the same thing over and over. Stop punishing me for buying your product. Stop lying about piracy. Just sell a decent product at a fair price."
But these things take time. Not to come up with the questions - geeks like me have this set just waiting - but to debate them, make the public aware of them, put together some sort of consensus about what is and isn't "fair".

And time is what Mandy won't allow.


Katie Sutton said...

I work for the Open Rights Group, who are campaigning against the Digital Economy Bill on the basis that it is unfair and disproportionate.
We're asking UK citizens to get in touch with their MP and explain to them why the Bill must be stopped, and possibly to meet them at one of their surgeries to discuss the specific problematic points of the Bill in detail.

We believe that visits and letters from voters will help change the minds of MPs currently for the proposals; our representatives will then see that people care about their rights and, as their duty is to vote in accordance with constituents' opinions, we hope that they will then oppose the Bill.

If you, or your readers, want to know more details about the specific problems picked out by ORG and its supporters, don't know who your MP is, need help with wording a letter or arranging a meeting with them, drop me an email - - and I'll do my best to get you the information you need; all you have to do is the talking.

vet said...

Katie, thank you for your feedback and offer, and I wish you good luck.

And I'm sorry about the spam followup, if you did get it forwarded. If I had any way of finding or punishing the perp I'd do it with a song in my heart, but I can't, so I have to make do with deleting and apologising.