The Digital Economy Bill is expected by some to be passed by the House of Commons in the ‘wash-up’ phase just before a general election is called. This proposed legislation has been somewhat controversial because it includes provisions that enable the Internet access of a household to be restricted or cut off.
The nature of the Internet
It has been interesting to watch this legislation develop, trying to understand how non-experts (politicians) debate legislation. I am still somewhat baffled by how much ignorance there is as to how the Internet works; many people don’t seem to grasp the concept that by putting in place systems to block illegal activity, this simply results in those engaged in such activity to work around any restrictions, possibly making identifying the infringements even more difficult.
The way the Internet allows individuals to circumvent centralised restrictions can be used for both good and bad. It can enable increased transparency and accountability but also can intrude on individual rights such as privacy and copyright. However, most important of all is the way it can multiply any effect, because communication is fast, global and targeted. In other words, when something is posted online by one person, within minutes it could be around the world, be it exposing corruption, or something that should really have remained private.
Debate over figures
I read an interesting blog item on the figures used to justify action on the grounds of protecting jobs in the creative industries. It raises some fundamental questions about the claims made by the rights lobbies relating to the losses they incur as a result of unlawful file sharing. I am in no doubt that unlawful file sharers gather collections of content which they would never have purchased (and possibly never even consume), but there needs to be additional quantitative research in this area.
Anyone who has worked with statistics is aware of the ability of those designing a study or interpreting its results, to influence the result in a particular direction. This is why so much weight is put on ‘independent’ studies, but how do they get their figures? The blog also refers to an article in Ars Technica which queries the origin of the figure that there are just under 7 million illegal file sharers in the UK:
“The number was quoted in a recent government report, but it’s not a government number; it turns out that the government commissioned a report from the CIBER research group at University College London, which contained the number. CIBER’s report cited the number four times, noting that it came from yet another report from consultancy Forrester.
Still with me? Get ready to go down the rabbit hole, because it’s here that things get weirder. The Forrester report in question does not in fact contain the “seven million” number, despite the CIBER citation. The number actually comes from a separate piece of research called the Jupiter Industry Losses Project, which attempted to quantify losses for the recording industry due to things like P2P usage. And who paid for the Industry Losses Project? The British recording industry, of course.”
The government is known for its poor performance when it comes to IT implementations, which is no surprise given the bureaucracies that exist within its various departments. IT systems help when they decrease the work which humans need to do, thus increasing efficiency. Often the problems associated with IT are in fact social problems, something which is often missed. The current legislation is very much focussed on technical measures, rather than dealing with the underlying social problem, or tackling the root cause of unlawful file sharing.
I hope that parliamentarians don’t make the same mistakes and vote blindly in support of some of the quite draconian parts of the Digital Economy Bill, as I very much doubt many of them have their focus on scrutinising legislation at this point in time. Lobbyists from the ISP sector will talk about all the problems associated with implementing these restrictions and how ISPs shouldn’t bear the costs, and the creative industries focus on how all this activity is resulting in lost revenues and jobs. MPs need to look beyond these and address the key issue of why this is a problem in the first place.
The Liberal Democrat policy set out on the blog of Bridget Fox, a prospective parliamentary candidate on the Digital Economy Bill has been rather promising. Whilst there remain questions, it firmly sets out their current objections against some of these controversial elements without a full debate. There are campaigners from other parties who are also campaigning for a full debate.