The business of rights…

Today sees the second reading in the House of Commons of the Digital Economy Bill, something I’ve mentioned in my blog more than once before. It is a bill that has been much discussed by privacy advocates and in the media, but that to the frustration (or even fury) of many is likely to get very little discussion time in the House of Commons, but rather be rushed through in the run up to the coming General Election. Even so, it is a very hot topic, and is very much in the news – and in the newspapers. Today, in advance of that second reading in the house, both ‘sides’ of the debate have taken out full page advertisements in the UK’s national press. The trade union-led Creative Coalition Campaign (CCC) has come out in support of the bill, with their full page advertisement in the Guardian talking of job losses if the bill isn’t passed, while the Open Rights Group and digital campaigners 38 Degrees have taken out their own ads, funded by donation, in both the Guardian and the Times, in opposition to the bill. A big fight – with the industry taking the canny approach of using the ‘jobs’ and leaving it to the unions rather than being seen so directly as the big, bad, business wolf, the pantomime villains of the piece, the enemies of ‘rights’.

It does seem that all too often the positions become polarised, and what should be negotiation for mutual benefit ends up in conflict. The story surrounding music is a prime example – the digital revolution should (and does) represent a vast opportunity for both the music industry and for individual consumers and creators of music, and yet what we have is a series of law suits and a big and often very antagonistic conflict. What’s happening with music is echoed almost everywhere else – with privacy advocates in conflict with the big boys of the internet world like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo over their data gathering and retention practices as another clear example. Does it have to be that way? Of course a certain degree of tension is inevitable – and indeed in many ways beneficial – does business really have to be ‘an enemy’ of individual rights? Sometimes it seems that way. I recently attended a lecture given by an  expert practitioner in the field of Data Protection – he was talking to students about the realities of a career as a data protection lawyer. He was in most ways a very good and very positive person – and yet to listen to him it was clear that from the perspective of both businesses and the lawyers who work for business that data protection was seen as a barrier to be overcome (or even sidestepped or avoided) rather than in any sense a set of positive principles that could (or should) be for the benefit of the individual data subjects or indeed for society as a whole. From his perspective, rights weren’t a beneficial thing so much as something that gets in the way of an enterprise’s opportunity to make a profit.

From the other point of view, privacy advocates sometimes seem to take an equally antagonistic approach – and if you view someone as an enemy, they may find it all to easy to slip into that role. Attack someone and they are quite likely to defend themselves. It may seem necessary – indeed in the short term and in specific situations it may BE necessary – but in the long term, surely both sides would be better off looking at it from a more cooperative and positive perspective. Advocates might find it a better way to get what they want – and industries might find themselves new, better and more sustainable ways to build their businesses.

How to do this is the big question – we seem to know very well how NOT to do it, but not have much of a clue of the reverse. The starting point, however, has to be more talking. The idea of rushing through the Digital Economy Bill is the exact opposite of that. The government is effectively saying that enough discussion happened in the House of Lords, and so we don’t need to talk more about it in the Commons. That can’t be right, can it? We have two Houses for a reason – and the Commons is supposed to be the place where the people are represented. If the music industry wants these proposals to work, it ultimately needs to get the people on its side – and if it wants that, it needs to be willing to talk about it, and to see things a little more from the people’s point of view. That, at the very least, would be a start.