Saturday 20 March 2010

A state-sponsored book-burning parade.

For months, my head has been jammed with anger and ideas about the Digital Economy Bill that's in the last stages of being rushed through parliament. I keep meaning to discuss it on this blog, and I haven't. Not because I don't care - actually, this piece of legislation offends me personally and politically more than anything Labour have done since they took us into Iraq - but because I care so profoundly that I don't think anything I can say can really do it justice. Pathetically, I'm also a bit intimidated by the volume of clever stuff that's been already been said about corporate copyright protection, and I'm scared that if I try to express how I feel I'll reveal myself as a Stupid Shouty Girl who Doesn't Understand. But I've got to at least acknowledge that this matters to me. It matters because the Digital Economy Bill is one of the most significant assaults on human rights that Labour has managed to execute in its twelve-year trigger-happy showdown with British civil liberties.

Today's open letter from a group of MPs, bloggers, musicians and members of the Featured Artists association [including Anthony Barnett of Open Democracy, Billy Bragg and The Indelicates] is a reserved shot of the sheer indignance that many internet users are feeling this week:

Many of us believe that the Digital Economy Bill threatens to severely infringe fundamental human rights, by allowing the disconnection of internet accounts for alleged copyright infringement, and also by new 'website blocking' laws that could result in new ways to suppress free speech and legitimate activity...Last week, Harriet Harman MP failed to give the commons any reassurances that this important, complex and controversial Bill will be properly scrutinised by our elected MPs. Democracy and accountability will be sidestepped if this bill is rushed through and amended without debate during the so-called 'wash-up' process.

The best blog analysis on the Bill that I've read recently has been helen's post at Police State UK, 'The Chilling Effect', explaining the recent amendments and why the actual sanctions proposed against people sharing files for free online are only part of the problem. Suppression of free speech isn't just about direct censorship - it's about creating a climate of cultural orthodoxy in which certain ways of behaving and sharing information are suspect, and then putting power in the hands of intermediary regulating authorities [ISPs, for example] to enforce that suspicion.

The Digital Economy Bill is altogether a larger and more dangerous assault on liberty than its individual clauses would suggest. What really frightens me about the government's corporate copyright protection movement is the casual, sneering manipulation of neoliberal dialectic: talking about 'safeguarding businesses', when clamping down on personal internet freedoms will endanger small entrepreneurial partnerships and cottage creative industries. Talking about 'protecting creative industries', when it's clear, as Bragg told Panorama last night, that "the music industry is thriving. It's the record industry that's in trouble."

This is a vile, vituperative piece of legislation, driven by corporate lobbyists and blithely ignoring public interest. It's a Faustian pact between a dying government and antique, anti-innovatory music and publishing industries who are as terrified now as manufacturers of illuminated manuscripts were in 1455 when they got their hands on the Gutenberg Bible and saw the page turning on a world of easily-exchanged ideas that they could not monetise or control. And just like today, the backlash was vicious, because of easy deal-brokering between communications merchants keen to control how people spent their money and state authorities keen to control people's access to ideas and information.

It's not just the fact that the Digital Economy Bill will criminalise young people, that this law has been written by people who mistrust and misunderstand the internet in order to punish those whose economic and cultural world has been formed by it. It's not just about the collision between information that wants to be free and information that others want to be expensive. It's about a cold and calculated assault on the forming paradigms of my generation, a final statement by a crippled and expiring Labour government that big business being free to make money at the expense of everyone else is the only thing that matters - more than the lives and livelihoods of individuals, more than artistic expression, more than the long-term socio-economic future of this or any other nation.

Because much as the Digital Economy Bill is Mandelson's terrible lovechild, collusion by frontbench Tories and Lib Dem Peers gives the lie to the idea that this is simply a Wicked Labour Scheme. It's not even a trend that's unique to Britain. Across the West, governments are moving to restrict the access of their citizens to unpaid content on the web, creating blacklists and gifting themselves with the power to cut people off from the syncretic world of high-speed information exchange at the slightest provocation. Future generations will look at campaigns like these in the same way that we think about fascist book-burning parades.

On Wednesday, there's going to be a demo in Westminster. Hope to see some of you London-centric folks there.


  1. The problem, in general, with Acts of Parliament that get rushed through before a general election is that they are usually poorly drafted and thus they hit too little of the target, too much of the target, or the wrong target entirely. The DEB is no exception.

    There is undoubtedly a problem with copyright in the digital era. Some people make a living by producing 'Intellectual Property' and we need a debate about whether that needs to carry on. If it does we do need to stop those people being ripped off. Some of those people will be rich, some will be poor, some will be corporate bodies.

    Copyright is an odd concept in many ways, for instance why should I be able to get fee if my words are used but not my equations. To see how this works in practice consider Sir Andrew Wiles. Sir Andrew in famous for proving Fermats Last Theorem. Simon Singh wrote a very accessible book about Sir Andrew's work, he did not have to pay Sir Andrew for the right to do so, but if someone wanted to use Simon's words in any substantial way they would have to pay Simon. This is when you think about it distinctly odd.

    But back to the bill. This bill goes too far in punishing those who infringe its provisions Importantly it allows punishment without trial. I would feel much happier with it if it involved the courts, with proper appeals processes in punishment.

    As it stands I have doubts as to whether these provisions can withstand a challenge in the Human Rights Court. The problem with that is the by the time that Court has pronounced much damage will have been done.

  2. You're certainly not a stupid shouty girl for feeling strongly here.
    Last summer, I tried to express an economists' objections in these posts:
    Not for the first time, your anger is rightful.

  3. For the record, I don't think the 'manufacturers of illuminated manuscripts' spearheaded a 'vicious backlash' against the Gutenberg Bible, but it's a nice idea -- I like to imagine them stabbing Gutenberg with their little pointy quill pens, or maybe sprinkling gold leaf in his beer.

    Seriously, though, I think you need to come up with a better argument against the Bill than simply repeating the old mantra 'information wants to be free'. As a socialist, I support copyright (the individual ownership of creative power) in the same way as I support the individual ownership of labour power. There is a socialist case to be made for copyright and against piracy (particularly when you have large corporations like Google trampling on the rights of individual copyright-holders). I'd like to support the campaign against the Digital Economy Bill, but it seems to be driven by a utopian anti-copyright libertarianism with which I have no sympathy. And comparing the Bill to 'fascist book-burning parades' is, frankly, not the way to get people to take you seriously.

  4. Here is a speech Lawrence Lessig gave to the Italian Parliament. He may be American, but much of what he says also applies to UK.

  5. Getting us all online, getting us all an individual web-page, not allowing anonymous surfing with open wifi. All are current policies that are ostensibly passing independent of each other. But this is truly joined-up 1984 control-freakery.

    Thanks for your great post.

  6. @anonymous: manufacturers of illuminated manuscripts' may not have spearheaded a 'vicious backlash' against the Gutenberg Bible, but the Catholic church most certainly did - for the first time in history, information could be reproduced quickly, cheaply and outside the control of those who wanted to control the orthodoxy of ideas.

    Fast forward 700 years or so, and history is repeating itself. Big Content is having the crap scared out of it, because they no longer have a monopoly on the creation and distribution of content. Governments are having the crap scared out of them because they no long have monopoly control over the dissemination channels. And both (because they're virtually impossible to distinguish between) are lashing out in a desperate attempt to turn back the tide.

    50 years ago, one of the most powerful tools of opposition that you could possess behind the Iron Curtain was a duplicating machine - because that was how you could disseminate your ideas. The internet is our duplicating machine.

    Concerns about copyright are at best proxy issues - what's at stake here is the ability to create and disseminate information without the say-so of entrenched vested interests, whether they're commercial or governmental.

    @penny_red, apologies for hijacking your comment thread with that response to your anonymous socialist, but their position simply can't go unchallenged - this debate is too important for that.

  7. @Anonymous, who said, "I'd like to support the campaign against the Digital Economy Bill, but it seems to be driven by a utopian anti-copyright libertarianism with which I have no sympathy."

    This isn't about copyright maximalists versus Internet freeloaders. It's about corporate control versus human rights.

    Calling this the Digital Economy Bill is ironic. It neither addresses the issue of monopoly reproduction rights in an age of zero-cost copying, nor promotes creative business in the digital era, which is a shame because there's a desperate need to do both those things.

    The debate left the economic axis when the Government decided to threaten families, businesses and places of education with disconnection from the Internet as punishment for the copyright transgressions of a few users of their connections; when Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers proposed censorship as the solution to websites hosting unlicensed files alongside legal ones; and when Lord Mandelson tried to grant himself powers to change copyright law without Parliamentary debate.

    I would have thought these were the sort of bad ideas against which a socialist could see themselves campaigning.

  8. Erm, yes, and what TimD said.

    And +1 apologies to Penny_red for causing a scene in your comments thread. If you're wondering where all these randoms came from, blame Twitter!

  9. I think that in many ways the taming and regulation of the internet is something of an inevitability - it's simply too powerful a force in practically every area of life to avoid reactionary policies attempting to limit that power. It doesn't help that, for the most part, the people whose power it threatens are exactly the ones who don't really understand it. The internet of today is an electronic wild west and, much as the idea saddens me, it's going to end up getting "civilised" in one way or another. I have a nasty suspicion we're currently living in the "good old days" of the web.

    That said, this bill is pretty much the worst way such regulation could come about. The legislation seems to simply want to stop the areas or activities that alarm the policy-makers, whereas if they insist on curtailing online freedoms (and they will), they're going to have to work with the internet rather than against it.

    Those of us who've grown up with our entire outlook and mindset shaped by the internet and its incredible nature have got to do everything and anything we can to stop this.

  10. I'm glad to see you weighing in on this. The damage that could be done by this bill if it isn't at the very least subjected to intense scrutiny and debate is difficult to overstate.

    It's absurdly short-sighted of the Government to try to rush this one through, even by the standards they've shown.

  11. Thanks for posting. This is the global civil rights issue of our generation. We stand on the edge of a new frontier. How we choose to settle it will define the future of our society. Progressives of all kinds should speak out now, lest that future be chained by reactionary and shortsighted lawmaking.

  12. Well, this is all par for the course as far as New Labour are concerned. It wasn't long ago they wanted to monitor ALL internet traffic in real time... erm... to protect us from terrorist attacks apparently by placing all internet users under surveillance. I expect that the ISPs will legally challenge the Digital Economy Bill in the courts, as they did in Australia vis-a-vis similar legislation where they won.

    This bill if it becomes an act won't prevent file sharing or much else as intended. Bittorent clients can now encrypt the protocol they use, dynamically change ports and do other things to make file sharing difficult to spot as far as ISPs are concerned. File sharers can also use proxy servers or VPNs to overcome pretty much every kind of block and restriction to surf or download from the web anonymously and securely. Most of these services involve paying a small monthly fee, but here's one interested parties can check out that will give you 20 minutes access to their VPN between disconnections for FREE; pay a small fee and use this VPN unconditionally, otherwise simply reconnect three times an hour and use it for NOTHING. Bit torrent to your heart's content and visited any website you want, blocked by your ISP or not.

    It's Hidden VPN: Use the web anonymously

    Fuck Peter Mandelson! Fucking little Red Queen that he is. And fuck the New Labour party that gave us lie detectors in benefit agencies, workfare for the unemployed and more attempts to curb and control us than any other government in living memory. Fuck them if they think they can commercialise and police the internet!

    In seven weeks New Labour will be toast!

  13. So what specifically is the government trying to stop people doing? I think I've missed this debate.

  14. The points raised are of the sort that ought to have me rushing to join folk on the barricades.

    Why then am I not? It’s a shameful thing to say but ultimately I think it’s just bloody-minded bitterness at the rest of the world. More specifically, I have a profound distrust and dislike of some of the factions that are involved in the campaign. The militant anti-copyright mob who want to see a lot of people lose their rights.

    Those folk aside, what I don’t see are suggestions for what to replace it with or enough public recognition of the harm done to musicians.

    That’s not a criticism of your post in particular, but the way the debate’s been going more generally…

  15. @inskauldrak I'll freely admit that I'm a member of the "The militant anti-copyright mob" however you shouldn't let your disagreements with the way the debate has been framed prevent you from seeing and speaking out against the injustice of the digital economy bill.

    Blocking websites at the ISP level that host or link to copyrighted material. Kicking entire IP addresses off the net. Punishment before fair hearings. It's being rushed through before an election so neither party has to shoulder all the blame for it. These are the hallmarks of a bad law.

    This is without need to resort to talking about how filesharing doesn't *necessarily* cost artists anything and that disconnection from the internet will obviously reduce the total amount of money spent on digital content (pirates buy more content)

    If you're not going to protest the Bill because some other people who are protesting it in a way you don't like then you're completely buying into the logic of the distribution industries - who want to frame all opposition to heavy-handed copyright policing as 'a bunch of freeloaders'

  16. @Edmund Ward I hear what you’re saying and I agree that legislation should be thought through.

    On the cost to artists front there’s a fair bit of competing evidence on that one. There are a substantial portion of pirates who never pay for any music content – I think research shows this increases the younger the demographic.

    It’s just difficult for people like me who spend their working life struggling to try and get musicians paid at all. The pressure on wages in all areas of recording is immense and real terms comparisons with the rates of pay of yesteryear make for grim reading. That’s not to say it’s all the fault of piracy or a reason to support specific legislation, just an idea of why it makes it an emotive issue for me.

    Another factor to consider is that the Bill means that there will be some legislation rather than none since the arts tend to be at the back of the legislative queue.

    As an example, take the (imho) much less contentious issue of Performers’ Right to Equitable Remuneration. This was agreed by treaty in about 1961. It took the UK until 1996 to introduce it and even then it was because of an EU directive on rental and lending.

    I don’t necessarily think that this counts as a compelling argument by any means, but it is a perspective worth considering and engaging with.

  17. @inskauldrak I certainly do concede that thought needs to be given to where we are going and where we are coming from on this issue. Artists have always struggled to get paid & I think any society is going to have people like you struggling to get some musicians paid - no?

    The Pirate movement has arisen as a reaction to the one-sidedness of mainstream political discourse on the issue as a result of pressure from the copyright lobby who insist on framing the issue in terms of criminality and spurious lost revenues (as if reduced profits was a reasonable excuse to open the door to censorship, disproportionate and collective punishment). If the Pirates seem extreme then it is a reaction to the opposing discourse that would criminalise over 10% of the population.

    The question is, how to reward creativity in a world where the marginal distribution costs of culture is essentially 0? It is a difficult question - The Pirate movement is a long way from all the answers but feel that it's approach is more clear-headed than most - who see the solution in intrusive yet ineffective protectionism for ostensibly obsolete industries (that have historically abused the legal protections we have granted them - "I view litigation as a key profit centre")

    So to borrow you're own point- I see the pirate movement as doing something in the right direction; by challenging the orthodoxy that copyright is essential for a creative society.

    Although it shouldn't have any bearing on the logic of my points I will state for the record that I pirate a reasonable amount but I have, since becoming a wage-earner spent a good deal of money donating to film projects(e.g., support as many indie games as I can find (e.g., buy from artists (e.g. share their work online. I also pay a monthly subscription to the local cinema for unlimited films. So on a personal level as a consumer of culture, I resent any suggestions that all pirates are cheapskates and freeloaders or thieves(not that they have come from anyone here) - I contribute as much as I can afford to the 'culture'; I just get much more bang for my buck and can spend my bucks in a more targeted manner.
    Ironically, after consuming the media, I buy discs and books - why? I buy them in physical form for the sole reason that I can *share them* more easily by putting them in my friends hands than I can by saying 'oh, check out x'
    For me culture is all about sharing.

  18. I once had someone who was obsessed with trying to make out I was stupid. I admit that some of my replies to her posts were done in haste, but she took it to another level. In the end, she hated me so much that she started making up stuff and pretending I had said it.

    Be brave, Penny, it's not easy to block out trolls.

  19. @ Edmund Ward

    I hope PR doesn't mind me wandering off-topic but it's good to be able to have polite and reasoned discussion on this kind of thing.

    Just as you would object to classing all 'pirates' as all of the one type it's important to remember that the copyright lobby is made up of various elements who are often at loggerheads.

    As an example, the people I often struggle to make pay up are probably the same corporate interests that you object to on the other side of the debate.

    You raise a good point about distribution costs but it's worth considering production costs. The up front investment can be quite considerable let alone an artist feeding themself during the creative process. I think some people (not saying you do) fail to recognise that.

    Coming back to being pro musicians' rights as opposed to corporate rights, surely the person that makes something should have some say over its use by others?

  20. "the Digital Economy Bill is one of the most significant assaults on human rights that Labour has managed to execute in its twelve-year trigger-happy showdown with British civil liberties."

    It is, and given Labour's record, that's saying a lot.

    Because much as the Digital Economy Bill is Mandelson's terrible lovechild, collusion by frontbench Tories and Lib Dem Peers gives the lie to the idea that this is simply a Wicked Labour Scheme.

    Lord Mandelson and Lib Dem Lord Clement-Jones have colluded with the BPI to write this bill. These "noble" lords think that big business should write our laws. It's a shame the British people won't get a chance to vote them out.

  21. Jonny: The internet of today is an electronic wild west and, much as the idea saddens me, it's going to end up getting "civilised" in one way or another. I have a nasty suspicion we're currently living in the "good old days" of the web.

    Corporate control of the net will only happen if people are lazy and apathetic and do nothing about it. If we fight them we will win; for example there are about 7 million people who illegally download copyright material, and they and their families all risk being disconnected from the net without presumption of innocence or a fair trial. That number of people is far too big for politicians to ignore.

    The best start is to join the Pirate Party.


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