The disclosure that the Government is actively discussing web-blocking will come as no surprise to many following the debate – but the fact that the confirmation had to be secured through an FOI request should be of real concern.
The inclusion of the Digital Economy Act in the wash up dramatically curtailed public debate around the significant powers contained within it. Whatever your views on the copyright and civil liberties issues involved, it was an affront to the democratic process for such a piece of legislation to be rushed through far from the glare of public scrutiny. Furthermore, the resulting legislation suffered massively from a lack of input and debate, in an area of policy that is absolutely central to Britain’s future as a digital knowledge economy.
It should be deeply troubling that the web blocking – and associated issues of net neutrality – are being pursued in a similar fashion. It appears that the rights holders group (which includes the BPI, UK Music, the Publishers’ Association and the Premier League; plus Google, Yahoo! BT, Virgin and TalkTalk) is already setting the narrative for the debate, with minimal input from outside groups.
There are a myriad of technical issues, civil liberties questions and economic development concerns associated with web blocking and the state taking on a role of internet censorship, many of which will be discussed on this blog in future.
However, the pressing challenge is simply to open up the debate on web blocking before it is too late and vested interests once again prevail.
Alan McGee is not known for being shy of a good soundbite. Then again, he’s also not immune to being entirely wrong - this is the man who signed One Lady Owner, Technique, Ultra Living and Toaster to Creation, lest we forget.
His latest outburst was to proclaim “illegal downloading is murdering the music business” on an NME blog post, citing the decline of EMI as proof of this. (Sadly he neglected to mention some equally spectacular errors on the part of the label, most notably an £80m four album deal for Robbie Williams.)
Earlier this week I did a blog post for the excellent Big Brother Watch, on the promising news that an Australian court had ruled that ISPs could not be held legally responsible for every case of copyright infringement by their customers.
Some of the comments took issue with my assertion that the primary motivation of those in favour of using legislation to find and punish small-scale copyright infringers (or put another way, probably billions of under 30s worldwide who share music and films). McGee’s article also called for this, arguing the way to save the music business is to “change the legislation in this country and come down much harder on piracy.” Sadly, he misses the point. That wouldn’t save the music industry - it would save record labels as we know them, pining for the boom years of the 1980s and 90s when CDs still fetched £16.99 in the shops.
In China, 95 per cent of all recorded music is pirated. So how is the Chinese music business doing? Perfectly fine, thanks. The only difference is the money doesn’t go to businesses that look anything like the major record labels of the West.
For bands starting out today, accessing an audience is far easier - and much, much cheaper - than it has ever been. Sites like Myspace are the more high-profile examples, but the fall in cost of computers and the emergence of things like Apple’s GarageBand - a bundled piece of basic but professional recording and production software - have lowered the barriers to entry for emerging artists massively.
Equally, there are far more opportunities to monetarise their music - from brand-based partnerships to touring and festivals (both of which are a bigger industry than they have ever been) and retailing varied packages of recorded music, whether that be the deluxe packages or pay-what-you-like approaches.
This is exactly the driving force behind a very exciting deal struck by Carl Barat recently, which brings together the various income generating aspects of the modern industry, and combines that with the investment backing of venture capitalists. For Barat, the costs of production are an investment for the parties involved, arguably a far more equitable process than the debt-burden of advances.
So, to those who question the feasibility of new business models, Barat is offering an illustration of one possible way forward. Radiohead continued their own off-piste adventure with King Of Limbs, and I am sure this year will see many more experiments
The main point is simple though. The marginal cost of production for digital assets is as near zero as not worth measuring,and this is the pervasive fact that has driven a generational acceptance of piracy as neither wrong nor immoral. Neither the technology nor, I would argue the punishment, exists to reverse this trend.
Its time to stop seeing piracy as theft and embrace it as a marketing force within an entirely new way of working.
The past few days have seen much fanfare with the unveiling of US Diplomatic Cables by WikiLeaks. While they have certainly caused much embarrassment, as yet I’ve not seen any particularly revealing content, or indeed anything that would threaten the life of a source.
While I would suggest this is because those media organisations involved have performed a degree of pre-publication redaction, which is to be welcomed, I would certainly vehemently disagree with those who see WikiLeaks as perpetrators of a crime or - as one particularly bonkers American politician did - that WikiLeaks should be classified as a terrorist organisation. Nothing disclosed is untrue, which is more than can be said of many ‘official’ sources. (Imagine what would have happened if the day of the Parliamentary vote on war in Iraq, Wikileaks had released the real sources which had been spun and massaged by messrs Blair and Campbell.)
The debate takes on a particularly interesting angle when seen in the context of UK Internet body Nominet (they control the .uk domains) announcing it is to seek, at the request of the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, powers to shut down UK websites.
It should be noted, this does not include any need to seek the approval of a court.
When WikiLeaks released a video of an Apache gunship shooting dead innocent civilians - and two international journalists - they performed an absolute public service. A cover-up was exposed, and justice done.
Are we to trust the same people who deplored that release with deciding what should, and should not, be allowed to be online?
Fortunately, the same globalisation that means we can enjoy cheaper clothes and food, do business around the world and travel to far flung places for exotic holidays is exactly the same globalisation that means information is no longer containable. The two are mutually dependent - the flow of knowledge the life blood of a modern economy.
Simply, the internet is beyond the control of any Governments, without a total and unyielding control of all internet traffic. I hope that would never be allowed in Britain.
Sadly, Nominet’s proposals highlight a worrying naivety of cyber policy. It echoes the ignorance that drove the Digital Economy Act’s disconnection powers through the commons without proper debate.
I hope this proposal will be greeted with the disdain it deserves. If controlling the UK web ‘brand’ is so important, it should at a minimum be done with judicial oversight.
Personally, I think we could do far more good looking at what already goes on beyond the immediate vision of regulators and focus on supporting the real front line, fought in distant corners of the globe and anonymous cyber cafes.
The last government pursued a number of policies that directly curtailed freedom and invaded the privacy of millions of citizens. On the same day as huge spending cuts were unveiled, I was infuriated by an annoucement - buried in the Strategic Defence Review - that the “Internet Modernisaton Programme” would go ahead.
Let’s be clear. This is deep packet inspection of every single use of an electronic communication in the UK. Emails, web browsing, text messages and voice calls are all covered. It’s not a threat to freedom - it is the whole deal.
As The Register puts it, “The reemerging Interception Modernisation Programme (IMP) means internet providers will be forced to install interception equipment in their networks to capture details of who contacts whom, when, where and how via services such as Facebook, Skype, webmail, and online games.”
It was not an insignificant act to abolish the National Identity Register, and the ID Card scheme that went with it. Great fanfare greeted the fact that this would be the first legislative act of the Coalition. As was said at the time by Home Secretary Theresa May: “This bill is the first step of many that this government is taking to reduce the control of the state over decent, law-abiding people and hand power back to them.
“With swift parliamentary approval, we aim to consign identity cards and the intrusive ID card scheme to history within 100 days.”
The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, added: “The wasteful, bureaucratic and intrusive ID card system represents everything that has been wrong with government in recent years.”
Both parties in the coalition identified the ‘intrusive’ nature of the scheme. I simply fail to see how, on any scale, the IMP is not just intrusive but actually direct surveillance of every citizen of the country. Not to mention the cost - estimated at £2bn (and since when has Government ever estimated IT projects in the same sport, let alone ball park).
Many, myself included, believe that the state cannot protect its citizens if its citizens are all deemed suspect. In exactly the same way as I have previously highlighted (in terms of the Digital Economy Act) to think this will solve the problem is incredibly naive.
The intelligence services themselves highlighted the risk of greater encryption as an effect of the Digital Economy Act, and let’s not forget that the coalition agreement pledged the “ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason”.
Whether it’s a matter of private communications, state surveillance, spending cuts or simply the evolving nature of technology, this is simply the wrong call. As anyone who has been involved in political activism in China will tell you, blanket state surveillance does not eradicate the “threat” - it simply drives it into areas otherwise not possible to monitor. Simple codes, agreed face to face and sent via pay-as-you-go phones was a core part of the Tibetan protests during the Chinese Olympics and they bypassed the greatest of surveillance operations ever seen.
This is not a strategic or cost effective part of protecting our national security. It is the greatest attack on our freedoms for a generation.