Monday, 19 April 2010

Digital Economy Act

The Digital Economy Bill recieved royal assent the other week, becoming the Digital Economy Act 2010. (pdf). The bill was passed during the 'wash-up' period at the end of the parliamentary session, meaning that it recieved limited scrutiny.

Particularly objectionable sections are the provisions in the Act for the disconnection from the internet of households where the connection has been accused of downloading material that infringes copyright. This has potentially servere implications for the digital inclusion agenda of the government. It also assumes that anybody who signs a contract with an ISP has the technical and social resources to police their family's internet useage (more info here) Writing for the Guardian, John Naughton argues:

How did this fiasco come about? Mainly because legislatures (both here and abroad) deal with intellectual-property issues in ways that are corrupt, irresponsible and inappropriate for modern technology.

The Act also appears to treat all 'internet service providers' equally in terms of measures to prevent copyright infringement. This is something that will be particularly onerous for the cafe on the corner with free wi-fi. To the point that they'll probably have to stop.

The Labour party had it's rebels: Tom Watson speaks to the Open Rights group about his opposition in Parliament to the Bill and the future discussions about online activity, rights, and copyright, and about how this is the beginning (video). "when an issue is debated in parliament, the argument has already been had". He thinks that the campaign against the bill drew more attention to it from MPs, and exposed the flaws in the 'wash up' process.

What is interesting about this area is that it seems that a number of people without much exposure to the mechanics of the political process, but with IT/technology knowledge have paid attention to that process during the passage of the bill. It might be worth keeping an eye on this area - there are surely going to be further contestations over digital rights policy. This scrutiny seems to have generated a lot of anger and irritation. For example is a site where you can find out how your MP voted on the bill. There was also a fair amount of scorn poured on MP's for technological mistakes or ignorance. This letter from 'Science in the Open' sums up some of this concern. Cory Doctrow takes it as a declaration of war

From a political science perspective, most votes in the House of Commons are determined by party position, rather than by individual stances of MPs, and most of the time, the chamber is occupied by far from the majority of MPs. Furthermore, MPs are generalists, rather than specialists, and there's no requirement to know much about the policy area they vote upon. That said, technology policy is an area of concern, with some structural issues.

There's definately work to be done on the politics of expertise. It would be applicable to both technological policy, environmental policy, and security/terrorism policy. All three areas where the ability of the generalist politician (and especially the public) to have decent information about the policy area is limited. It's a problem for democratic systems, and leads to a reliance on experts. However the question then becomes - which experts, and under what structures of accountability and oversight. In CT policy, this often the preserve of 'security experts' or classified reports from intelligence agencies. In environmental policy, it's probably the best developed, the experts are public and decisions can be made on the basis of the scientific method and peer review. Digital copyright policy just got written by experts working for the big industry players.

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