Fear Is the Mind-killer

These opening remarks were delivered at a debate on The Digital Economy Act held in Brighton in April 2010.

These opening remarks were delivered at a debate on The Digital Economy Act held in Brighton in April 2010.

Technological change can be disruptive to the status quo. If you are part of an entrenched status quo, technological change is, therefore, something to fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

The gramophone (or phonograph) was unleashed upon a music industry that reacted with predictable fear. The composer John Philip Sousa said:

These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country… We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.

The business model of the music industry at that time was based upon the sale of sheet music. Rather than adjust the business to take advantage of the new technology, Sousa and others in the status quo, railed fearfully against the change.

It was the same with radio. Why would anyone buy recorded music when they can hear songs over the airwaves? Blinded by fear, the recording industry couldn’t imagine that radio could actually be a promotional tool that would increase sales of recorded music.

The film industry has a similar fear-filled history. In the 1980s, Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America said:

…the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.

That was before video sales went on to deliver the majority of the movie industry’s profits.

We hear the same fear-fuelled reactions today. Now the internet is the harbinger of doom, the destroyer of worlds, if the status quo is to be believed. Using the ludicrous metric of one downloaded file being equal to one lost sale, they claim to be losing money, completely ignoring the data that file-sharers are, in fact, more likely to purchase more music. File-sharing has become the new radio—a way for music lovers to find new music.

“But you wouldn’t steal a handbag,” cry the studio executives, “you wouldn’t steal a car!”

Well, I would if stealing meant reproducing a perfect replica of a handbag or a car without in any way affecting the original. Once something is digitised, it no longer makes sense to treat it as a scarce resource. As security expert Bruce Schneier put it:

…trying to make digital files uncopyable is like trying to make water not wet.

First they tried the euphemistically named Digital Rights Management, or DRM: a deliberate crippling of digital goods to make them less useful and more frustrating for the consumer. That was a disaster.

Now, the focus has moved away from the file formats and onto the distribution networks. Instead of finding new ways to make money from network technology, the British Phonographic Industry is trying to cling on to the past …and cling on to us. With the Digital Economy Act, they appear to have found a way to prevent us using the incredibly empowering technology of the internet.

Except, on closer examination, this act does no such thing. All that money spent wining and dining Peter Mandelson may have been wasted.

The Digital Economy Act will have an effect, but it won’t be the desired effect.

  • It will spread fear, uncertainty and doubt amongst innocent internet users who will receive aggressive threats because a single IP number has been incorrectly associated with a single person.
  • It will make life much more difficult for Internet Service Providers who now have to deal not only with customer support, but also with supporting outdated business models.
  • It will provide lots of work for lawyers and solicitors.
  • It will not prevent any illegal downloading. It is trivially easy for a file-sharer to move from ISP to ISP long before the warnings against them are in danger of transmuting into disconnection.

It’s a terrible piece of legislation designed to cause unintended consequences and blowback.

It’s also completely pointless. The internet will interpret surveillance and censorship as damage and route around them. Legal loopholes have already been discovered and I would be happy to provide you with details on how to acquire Digital Economy Act immunity.

I’m angry about this act, but not because of its contents, which are just laughably out of touch with reality.

I’m angry because this act was passed without proper consideration. It was rushed through during the “wash up” period following the announcement of the general election. This period is normally only used to hurry through uncontroversial bills. 22,000 concerned emails from constituents up and down the country demonstrate that this bill was very controversial.

I’m very angry that the Digital Economy Act overturns a fundamental principle of law: the presumption of innocence, more often encapsulated as innocent until proven guilty.

If you are accused of transgressing the Digital Economy Act, you are presumed to be guilty. Your internet connection will be terminated at the whim of the BPI and the Pirate-finder General, Peter Mandelson, without any trial, without any judge, without any jury.

If we want to stop illegal activities, this isn’t the way to do it. I am against paedophelia, rape and murder, but I still believe that anyone accused of such crimes has the right to a trial.

The same internet connection that we are being encouraged to use to file our taxes, register with our doctors, and complete our education, can now be cut off simply because we are accused of transferring some digital data.

The Digital Economy Act is an insult to democracy, created out of a cauldron of fear stirred by a cabal of outdated business interests.

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