Lobbyists: who pays the piper…

A few weeks ago I experienced first hand the role of lobbyists, when I saw them do their best to start steering the CREATe project in their own direction (see my blog here). In the time since then, two more issues have come up that have highlighted their significance – and why we need to be concerned. We should be looking much more carefully at their activities.

Copyright lobbyists

To recap, at CREATe it was the lobbyists for the ‘content’ industry – what might loosely be called ‘copyright’ lobbyists – who were trying to ensure that the project, which is amongst other things looking at copyright reform, did not dare to challenge their assumption that ‘piracy’ needs to be stomped on above all things. The copyright lobby is a very powerful one indeed, and has had huge influence on the policies of governments worldwide – in the UK, they still seem to have a firm grip on all the major parties, and were the key behind the controversial Digital Economy Act. They are, however, only one of the lobby groups that we should be watching.

Advertising industry lobbyists

The second emerging issue concerns another key lobby – the online advertising industry. For privacy advocates like me, the advertising industry as often been a bit of a bête noire – behavioural advertising in particular generally works through significant invasions of privacy – but their recent activities in relation to the ‘Do Not Track’ initiative have been concerning. They’ve been fighting tooth and nail to block Microsoft’s idea that DNT should be ‘on’ by default on Internet Explorer – and according to Alexander Hanff they’ve also managed to co-opt privacy advocates to help undermine the DNT specification itself, allowing for ‘de-identified’ tracking without any kind of consent.

There’s a long way to go on this one, but I’m far from alone in thinking that they’ll manage to pretty much entirely neuter DNT. As security expert Nadim Kobeissi put it in a blog post yesterday, DNT is becoming ‘Dangerous and Ineffective’. We can largely thank advertising industry lobbyists for that.

‘Internet Industry’ Lobbyists

The third and potentially most worrying of all the recent lobbyists activities to emerge is the story of US ‘internet industry’ lobbyists working to undermine the draft Data Protection Regulations. As the Telegraph reported:

“Tory MEPs ‘copy and paste Amazon and Google lobbyist text'”

As I also experienced first hand at the Computers, Privacy and Data Protection conference in Brussels earlier this month, industry lobbyists particularly from the US are very concerned by the proposed Data Protection Regulation, partly because as drafted it would allow them to have the power to actually fine industry groups a meaningful amount of money – 2% of their global turnover – the kind of fine that would actually make a difference, and could actually make them change their activities.

Making changes….

That’s the key – indeed, the key for all three of the lobbying stories above. A resistance to change. The copyright lobbyists don’t want to have to change either their business model or their approach to enforcement. The advertising industry don’t want to have to change their privacy-invasive way of tracking people. The ‘internet industry’ companies don’t want to have to change their way of gathering and using people’s personal data. And in all three cases, they don’t seem to really care what people want or care about. In the copyright lobbyists example, as I noted in my blog at the time, they seem to be resisting even the gathering of evidence. In the other two cases, I suspect the same is true – because the more evidence that comes out, the clearer it is that people do care about privacy and don’t want to be tracked.

It’s not US vs EU

One of the most common arguments made in these cases is that it’s some kind of a Transatlantic conflict – a ‘cultural difference’ between the US and the EU. We in Europe are trying to ‘impose’ our values onto the US. Is it true? Well, the most recent evidence suggests otherwise – indeed, it suggests that people in the US care every bit as much as people in Europe do about privacy. According to a recent survey, 77% of Americans would select ‘do not track’  if it were available – putting them above many European countries, below only France. As David Meyer put it: ‘Think Europeans are more into data privacy than Americans? Think again.”

I suspect he’s right – and the divide isn’t a Transatlantic one. It’s a divide between individuals everywhere and the industry lobbyists. Lobbyists, by their nature, look out for those they’re lobbying on behalf of. Of course they do – that’s their job. We need to understand that – and act appropriately. What the lobbyists do should worry us – because they don’t serve our interests. Who pays the piper calls the tune – and it’s not us!

That’s not to say that they don’t have legitimate interests – they do! What the industries they represent do is crucial for all of us, for the future of the internet. However, it does need to be balanced, and right now it looks very much out of balance.

7 thoughts on “Lobbyists: who pays the piper…

  1. “A few weeks ago I experienced first hand the role of lobbyists, when I saw them do their best to start steering the CREATe project in their own direction”

    What a strange remark – perhaps you can explain? Since the purpose of CREATe is ostensibly to help UK creative industries, at considerable expense to the taxpayer, you seem to have a most curious reaction when those industries look to CREATe for help.

    Since the high tide mark of the Digital Economy Act in 2010, the anti-copyright lobby has been in the ascendent. The Hargreaves Review and the consequential rollback of copyright are the direct consequence of powerful lobbying. Only seeing one side of the lobbying effort over copyright gives your outlook a distinctly conspiratorial flavour.

    • Perhaps you haven’t read my original blog on the subject – follow the link on the blogpost to see it. I do see both sides of the argument – what was remarkable about the CREATe event from my perspective was that almost everyone there was open to all possibilities, aware of the huge complications and thorny problems, and looking for solutions. Only the lobbyists seemed to have preconditions: that we clamp down on piracy before anything else is on the table.

      Do have a look at my original blog post – most of the people who I’ve spoken to who were at the event recognised what I have said….

    • I’d also be interested in what you really mean about the ‘anti-copyright lobby’ being in the ascendent: Hargreaves wasn’t anti-copyright in any meaningful sense that I can see, and we’ve had no change over the Digital Economy Act. Tactics like web-blocking are still being legally supported – even if their practical effect is somewhat debatable. Do you mean the ‘defeat’ of SOPA, PIPA and ACTA?

  2. I posted that having read your original post too. It doesn’t answer my question. Support for creative business is unlikely to come from theorists with no business experience, who are profoundly hostile to creative markets. The notion of copyright as a property right itself is an anathema to everyone at Create.

    “Hargreaves wasn’t anti-copyright in any meaningful sense that I can see”

    Doesn’t that statement rather confirm your prejudices? The Hargreaves Review was deeply hostile to copyright, in both language and substance. It reflects the view that copyright as a regulation to be removed or curtailed where possible. This is ideological.

    A frank debate requires everyone to look at the world honestly, rather than through a conspiratorial prism. I am not convinced you can do that, Paul.

    Perhaps you can prove me wrong and list five concrete proposals from Create which are likely to result in growth for creative industries?

    • Steve, I’m a former Chartered Accountant who has a good deal of business experience before turning to academia, as are many who are involved in this kind of project. I’m afraid you’re quite wrong if you think the notion of copyright as a property right is anathema to everyone at CREATe – it isn’t at all. It isn’t to me, for one! My objection (and indeed that of many people I know) isn’t to the right but to the method of enforcement, and even that isn’t a theoretical objection but a practical one: I don’t believe it can or will work, but simply encourage and support piracy.

      The frank debate does indeed, as you say, require us to look at the world honestly – and crucially, to look at it in an open-minded way. That’s really the point of CREATe: it’s not intended to assume outcomes, but to investigate possibilities. It’s a long term project aimed at finding solutions, not assuming what those solutions will be in advance of the investigations. That was what many objected to about the lobbyists approach: they seemed to be assuming what the result should be before the evidence was gathered.

      We all want solutions that will result in growth for the creative industries – can’t we investigate that without assuming there’s only one possible answer?

      • I have invited you to make suggestions but you don’t seem to want to engage in the discussion.

        As for rights enforcement: which methods do are acceptable to you and which do you wish to weaken or abolish?

      • Steve, I am engaging in discussion – what I’m not doing is second-guessing the results of investigative research before the research has happened… There aren’t easy answers – if there were, we would have found them. That’s why we need large-scale long-term research and evidence gathering.

        As for enforcement, the first thing I would weaken/abolish is any kind of blocking of access on suspicion rather than proof. Internet access is too important to allow it to be blocked without proof of wrong-doing, proof verified by proper legal processes.

        That, however, is to an extent off the point: the real point is that the enforcement tactics don’t seem to be working. If something isn’t working, isn’t the logical response to look for another way?

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