A letter to my MP
For those not in the UK this will probably be a little parochial. Don Foster is my local MP in Bath. The Digital Economy Bill, currently going through a “wash-up” process triggered by the announcement of a general election yesterday in the British Parliament has drawn extensive criticism from most of the British technology community. Last night an unprecedented number of people followed its second reading on BBC and via Twitter. As this is explicitly political please read the disclaimer on this one.
Dear Don Foster,
I am writing firstly to commend you for your attendance at the Digital Economy Bill Second Reading last night. I was one of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people watching the reading unfold on Twitter. By now perhaps some MPs and party strategists are digesting what happened but I wished to pick out a few things that seemed particularly relevant, particularly in the context of a general election.
This was the first real exposure of many of those watching to the internal functioning of the house. A large community of highly engaged people motivated to either watch, listen, or follow blow by blow descriptions of exactly how the debate proceeded. The almost universal reaction was one of abject horror.
Representative democracy bases its existence on the assumption that the full community can not be effectively involved in an informed and considered criticism of proposed bills and that it is therefore of value to both place some buffer between raw, and probably ill informed public opinion, and actual decision making. This presumes that MPs, particularly party spokespersons take the time to become expert on the matter of bills they represent. By contrast what we saw last night was a minute by minute dissection by well informed people outside of parliament of what, with a small number of honourable exceptions, totally uninformed people within parliament were saying.
The placement of copyright infringement alongside theft (Afriye, Timms, Wishart) displays a fundamental lack of understanding of the UK legal system, and particularly the distinction between civil and criminal law, property and monopoly rights. Not things that are well understood by the public but things that the public have a right to expect parliamentarians to educate themselves about as they go to the heart of what the bill is about. These points were dissected and rebutted instantly online only to be repeated uncritically in the house.
The idea that the bill has any chance at all of reducing illegal filesharing by 70% is laughable, as is the idea that “technical measures” can protect public WIFI against unfair take down notices. Finally the notion that the “creative industries” are suffering when they have taken record profits are their own research shows that illegal file sharers are their biggest customer needs to be put to parliament.
But the UK’s real creative industry were those on Twitter last night. The people whose livelihood depends on a free and working internet, who work as sole traders or in small companies. The people who will create the media of the 21st century. The people who will bring the UK out of recession. They were out in force last night and while we disagree passionately about the details of copyright and intellectual property rights and how they should be best applied, there was one voice united in the wish that the Digital Economy Bill in its current form be buried.
Particular horror was reserved online for those MPs who stated clearly that the process of the bills progress was unacceptable. That something so important has had such little scrutiny and that something so controversial has been placed in the wash-up process. Member after member stood up to say the bill and its progress was flawed, dangerous, and “appalling” but they would nonetheless “reluctantly” support it.
Finally I would note that, while you were present, the lack of other Liberal Democrats in the house was noted. This is a natural constituency for your party. Indeed Bath has a vibrant technology community as you are no doubt aware. I hope your party strategists have seen the damage that was done last night and I hope they draw the logical conclusion. If the Liberal Democrats turn out in force tonight and bury this bill at the third reading then it will make a difference to your electoral results. If you want a hung parliament, this is the way to get it.
p.s. I will be posting this letter publicly on my blog at http://cameronneylon.net Please feel free to reply or comment there. I hope you will give me permission to publish any other reply you make in a similar form.
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