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.

Digital Economy Bill passes the Lords…

Just a brief note – further to last week’s post, the Digital Economy Bill has now passed its third reading in the House of Lords, and is expected to be rushed through the commons before the election (see the BBC report here). Do people really understand what’s happening here? And more to the point, even if they do, do they care? There will be active campaigning against it for sure – not least by the Open Rights Group – and it will be interesting to see how much opposition to the disconnection provisions can be raised in the face of the Government’s clear desire to get it done quickly. Will the UK demonstrate the kind of ‘active community’ that worked so well in Germany to deal with their data retention laws, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago?

I certainly hope so – and at a time when an election is looming, the government should certainly be responsive to signs of popular resistance. Are we in the UK ready to stand up for freedom on and with the internet? Time will tell…

All hail the Internet?

Two stories this week have emphasised the importance of the Internet in today’s world.

The most recent, and perhaps the strangest, is the news that the Internet has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, in a campaign mounted by Wired Italy – this is how the English language version of Wired is reporting it. Of course there have been stranger (and much more controversial) nominations over the years, but even so it does seem an unusual, though far from unwelcome suggestion. The Internet can be (and at times has been) a wonderful tool for peace. As said Riccardo Luna, editor-in-chief of the Italian edition of Wired magazine puts it: “The internet can be considered the first weapon of mass construction, which we can deploy to destroy hate and conflict and to propagate peace and democracy. What happened in Iran after the latest election, and the role the web played in spreading information that would otherwise have been censored, are only the newest examples of how the internet can become a weapon of global hope.”

The second story comes from the BBC World Service, who commissioned a poll, covering more than 27,000 people in 26 countries across the digital divide which came up with some headline grabbing statistics, the most notable of which was that across the world, almost 80% of people now regard Internet access as a basic human right. There are many highly revealing findings, both on a country-by-country basis and giving more of a global picture, but the headline figure is certainly something about which we should stop and think. Internet access a basic human right, comparable with electricity and water? And this is something believed not just in technologically advanced countries, but right across the digital divide – countries such as Mexico, Brazil andTurkey most strongly supporting the idea of net access as a right.

So, two stories, one suggesting that the Internet should be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize, the other suggesting that access to the Internet is a fundamental human right – and what do we have happening in the UK, and seemingly quite likely to become law, but the idea of restricting or even cutting off internet access for people caught illegally file-sharing, in the shape of the Digital Economy Bill. Cutting off a fundamental human right, for something that, though illegal, is hardly of the most egregious of crimes, doesn’t exactly seem proportionate. Though people like Ian Livingston, British Telecom’s Chief Executive, who has publicly raised his concerns about the Bill, along with various other industry leaders (including representatives of BT, Virgin Media, Carphone Warehouse and Orange) may have a clear vested interest in opposing these terms within the Bill, it is certainly something that many more of us should be concerned about.