The Digital Economy Bill: the real reason for people’s angst?

I’ve been following the progress of the Digital Economy bill over the last few days.  Predominantly because of the plethora of #debill hashtags that have littered my Twitter feed of late.  It culminated in my watching two hours of live parliamentary debate late last night, ending in an overwhelming majority Commons vote to pass the bill, and a subsequent passing of the bill in the House of Lords today.

Here’s my take on it all, which may cause some debate and disagreement.

The bill itself doesn’t overly concern me.  Among other things, seemingly its most controversial measure is to give copyright owners an indirect route to contact those suspected of copyright fraud.

Now in principle, this seems like an honourable and justifiable cause.  People are stealing stuff, and there are currently insufficient means for these people to be prosecuted.

The concern—or at least the concern that people are voicing—focuses around the possibility that innocent people will be prosecuted, either because of a questionable copyright claim or, more worryingly it seems, through innocent people’s wi-fi connections being stolen by neighbours or, as cited in the parliamentary debate, people parking cars outside people’s houses with their laptops on their knees.

As I see it, the internet is like a road system.  And we should use it within the confines of the law.  Our routers are akin to our cars, and we should protect them in a similar manner to the way in which we protect our vehicles.  And the measures that are being put in place are, in principle, similar to speed cameras.  They record that an incident might have occurred and notify the possible infringer of this occurrence.

If someone receives a speeding ticket in the post, as the owner of the vehicle it is up to them to identify the person who was driving at the time and pay the fine accordingly.  Why any different for router owners?

Places in which multiple people can access the internet, such as libraries, internet cafés, wi-fi hotspots, have an obligation to reduce the incident of criminality, or else ensure that they can track down those people who have—using means that they have provided—acted illegally.  In this guise, they are like car rental companies, who ensure that any speeding fines and parking tickets are passed on to the people who have perpetrated the crimes.

Underlying all of this debate and the negativity surrounding the bill, I think there is a more sinister dynamic going on, one that the analogous speeding ticket example has also suffered.  Some people feel that the law is an ass.  With driving, they feel that 70mph should be open to interpretation.  And with digital media, they see the money that Robbie Williams and Steven Spielberg make, and think that stealing from such wealthy individuals isn’t a crime in the true sense of the word.

I don’t concur with this view—stealing is stealing, and speeding is speeding.  And Williams and Spielberg are convenient examples, that deflect the attention from the smaller artists who lose out through illegal file-sharing.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I think the way in which the bill was rattled through parliament was wrong.  There seem to be weaknesses in the bill that have not been given the due diligence necessary and the deadline of parliament dissolving seems to have trumped common sense.  But nonetheless, I feel that the fundamentals of the bill and the principles for which it stands are sound, despite Stephen Timms’ thinking IP addresses are Intellectual Property addresses.

And now I await the wrath of the rabid Twitterati, who, it seems, have been successfully whipped into a frenzy, many of whom I feel have followed the crowd rather than forming their own opinions.  Just sayin’.


3 Responses to “The Digital Economy Bill: the real reason for people’s angst?”

  1. James Ravenscroft on April 9th, 2010 10:18

    Whilst I agree that people ‘caught speeding’ should have to pay their fine, I think this law comes down to the usual war on pirates debate and that the big, monolithic, media corporations who can’t be bothered to change their aging business models have been dealt too good a hand. It equates to the council installing speed cameras set to trigger at 28 mph in a 30 zone because they need to raise some cash in a flash. I agree that fundamentally, stealing is wrong – piracy, included in this assertion. However, piracy is here, it’s very, very big and the media corporations can never stop it.

    The fight between piracy and the copyrights holders is analogous with an arms race, both sides are capable of making developments the D.E. Bill will just inspire pirates to make the next move, they’ll develop some technology that takes advantages of loopholes in their precious law. The media corporations, once again, will be back at square one.

    I think its about time that these aging groups start trying to use piracy in their business models. Some artists have already been giving away their CDs free in an effort to promote their live music events. I think this is a step in the right direction

    We live in a digital age where the cost of producing copies of CDs, Films, Games etc is zero. Therefore, any money made on these products is purely profit. So let consumers pay what they think the product is worth, if Radiohead or the Nine inch Nales are anything to go by, copyright holders will most likely be pleasantly suprised by the number of generous donations.

  2. SLATFATF on April 9th, 2010 17:56

    Some interesting points. My first worry is your point “Places in which multiple people can access the internet, such as libraries, internet cafés, wi-fi hotspots, have an obligation to reduce the incident of criminality, or else ensure that they can track down those people who have”. Why limit this just to internet providers. Why not railway stations have an obligation to reduce criminality, why not make the reduction of all crime the responsibility of any business. You run a proof reading service then it is your obligation to protect the owners of written IPR in the form of patents and copyright to ensure that you prevent such activity. Would that be fair? Probably not. While you might argue that you could probably detect that someone asking you to proof read Alice in wonderland might be obvious, other material may not be so. Why put crime detection into the hands of the amateurs?

    Under UK law you get a chance to either go to court and defend yourself (even for speeding tickets) and you are largely prosecuted by the crown. You have some accountability there. Under this law though you are open to the equivalent of prosecution and penalty (removal of your internet) by the private sector (if I understand this correctly). Where else are you allowed to take the law into your own hands. My business has been robbed a few times but I am not permitted to go after the criminals and punish them for their alleged crimes.

    I do agree that theft is theft and I have commented and written on alternative models that would reduce it. I am not keen that such an inherently insecure thing as the internet have to be locked down to prevent such crime. Its the wrong way to do it and largely impossible. The arms race is exactly what it is except the publishers have to fund there side (there are few of them) and the downloaders easily find ways to get around them (large numbers of people, lots of innovation to defeat the few).

    So for me this bill is not in itself a worry but what concerns me is the next bill. Where does it go from here? If you slander and organization over the phone do they get to cut off your phone? If you send an insulting letter to Heinz because your baked beans were off do they get to turn off your post?

    We have a criminal justice system. They deal with punishing criminals. Lets leave it in their hands.

  3. Patrick on April 9th, 2010 20:59

    I’m afraid I disagree. The clauses in the bill – now law – which allow the Govt to shut down websites which might be used to compromise copyright materials (Wikileaks, anyone?) and to cut off users without proof (only suspicion) seem particularly pernicious.

    It was clear in the sparsely attended debate that not many MPs have a working understanding of technolical issues.

    The whole process was disturbing, and felt undemocratic.

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