Result of MP visit – I suck

So earlier tonight I turned up at the monthly ‘surgery’ of my MP, Frank Dobson (Labour), to present my objections to the Digital Economy Bill.

For the benefit of others also going to tackle Mr Dobson on this issue, (and anyone going to see some other MP) here’s a quick write up of my experiences:

I arrived up half an hour before it started, and there were about eight parties ahead of me in line. My turn came half an hour after they kicked off. I had hoped to present my argument pretty much as I laid it out in my previous blog post. However, sadly I pretty much comprehensively failed to get my point across.

The ‘I am not a spittle-flecked loon’ introduction

As planned, I started out by saying that I fully support copyright law, and of the importance of finding ways to ensure that artists get renumerated for their work. The portions of the bill which describe the pursuit of illegal downloaders therefore have laudable and important goals, however I think that the costs and problems associated with preventing illegal downloads like this are substantial, and actually make this section of the bill counter-productive. Mr Dobson was an affable gent, and listened attentively to what I had to say.

Disconnection needlessly punishes more innocent people than guilty ones

The first objection I wanted to raise, because it seems to me to be the most clear-cut, is that the bill suggests disconnection from the internet for persistent downloaders. I pointed out that since most internet connections are shared between several people (families and housemates) disconnecting a single illegal downloader would also unfairly affect all the people who share their connection. Mr Dobson’s opinion was that it would rarely come to actual disconnection – the intention of the Bill is very much that disconnection would be a rarely-used last resort. The earlier provisions in the bill (warning offenders for their first ‘two strikes’) are intended to stop almost everyone from illegally downloading, without any need for actual disconnections to take place.

Obviously I regard that as a grave misjudgement.  But I had a lot of ground to cover, so I left this issue at that. I still feel that even if disconnection were only applied to a small number of people (which seems unlikely, from my perspective), it is still true that this would affect more innocents than guilty parties. There is no reason not to prefer more conventional punitive measures over disconnection.

Impossibility of distinguishing guilt from innocence

I moved onto my second point: When monitoring downloads, it is impossible to distinguish between guilt and innocence. If I download a song I own, from my home to my office, this behaviour may currently be legally murky, but it is clearly morally justifiable. To any external observer, this looks indistinguishable from illegal download. An observer cannot tell whether a particular download is illegal or not just by looking at the bits going down the wire – it requires more context than that.  It requires the observer to know which CDs I have bought, and to what use I intend to put the proceeds (is it subject to fair use exemptions, etc?) Therefore, along with many illegal downloaders, the system proposed in the bill will also catch many innocent people in its net.

These innocents can appeal – there is a procedure in the bill for this – however they will find it impossible to demonstrate their innocence. If I have bought a CD and ripped it to my computer (which I have done with all my CDs, many years ago) then when I am accused of illegally downloading it, how am I supposed to demonstrate that I once bought that CD?

Mr Dobson listened with patience and good humour to this. However, it was clear from his responses that while he is a capable man who is working hard and with the best of intentions, the scenario I outlined was fairly foreign to his experience. He suggested that the bill is not aimed at catching people like me who are doing nothing wrong. It is aimed at people who are making a dishonest living by massive downloads which they are somehow making money from. I don’t believe that any such people actually exist, never mind that the bill is aimed at them: The wording of the bill clearly encompasses individuals downloading music for their own listening pleasure, and deliberately so, but I did not go into this.

Mr Dobson felt that the appeals process would be sufficient for anyone such as my self to protest their innocence. I totally failed to communicate that demonstrating my innocence during such an appeals process would be very difficult. When I reiterated that I could not, for example, produce the receipts to all the music and movies I have ever bought in my entire lifetime, Mr Dobson reiterated that the bill was not aimed at innocent people like me, it would only be applied to illegal downloaders. I again said I don’t see how the ISPs can distinguish between the two – for example I cannot produce the receipts nor the CDs that my music came from – I ripped them in 1998, and have since discarded them all. Mr Dobson said that perhaps when the bill become law (my emphasis), people will be obliged to keep their CDs “in a plastic bag in the garage”, in preparation for just such a scenario. I pointed out that all of my music for the last few years has been purchased online – so never came on any CDs to begin with.

Mr Dobson didn’t seem receptive to this argument. He was still in good spirits at this point, however, I totally failed to persuade him that difficulty in distinguishing between guilty and innocent downloaders was even a realistic possibility, never mind that it would actually be a serious problem.

I had hoped to move on from this point to demonstrate that this presumption of guilt that the bill contains will have a severe chilling effect on people’s legitimate and morally justifiable uses of the internet, and this will hamper the development of business models, which will be presumptively quashed before ever getting a chance.

However, Mr Dobson suggested that I should send him the remainder of my points to him in a letter. I asked him if I could just spend 30 seconds skipping through the executive summary of the remainder of my argument, since I felt there was a logical chain of inferences to follow, which demonstrated some real problems with the bill. He suggested that I write it to him in a letter instead.

Probable ten or fifteen minutes had elapsed. We exchanged cordial pleasantries and headed out for a lovely curry down the street with my awesome wife.

10 thoughts on “Result of MP visit – I suck

  1. I see – THAT Michael Sandel. I just watched a 6 minute highlight, and realised I’ve seen references to his stuff all over the place. Thanks for that, he’s in my queue now.

  2. On the “talking to your own MP will have absolutely bugger all effect” thing… I agree. I have a little metaphor thingumy for it: how many men ask their fiances to marry them and get turned down? As a percentage it is teeny. Not because women are all desparately waiting for somebody to ask them but because men don’t risk failure, we wait till we’re fairly certain they’ll say yes before we ask. Bills aren’t published, in any colour of paper, until it has been talked over so much that everyone already knows that the broad principles will get through. The discussion now will be about details: which church, who’s going to sit next to Aunt Maud, how will the appeals process work, how long will the disconnection period be, where’s the stag party?

  3. Oh no, don’t talk to me about the institutional corruption lecture. I watched that so wanting to be impressed and found it so one-sided and dumbed down it could have come out of the mouth of Michael Moore.

    Did you hear the Morals and Markets (title isn’t right) Reith lectures by Michael Sandel? I think he is my equivilent of your Lessig crush. I prefer his “there aren’t really any right answers but this is my opinion” style. Might only be in the tone of voice but I like it.

  4. Also – you remind me thoroughly of evidently-my-idol Lessig again, who has a video online of his recent talk on ‘institutional corruption’, whereby organisations do the wrong thing not due to outright corruption, per se, but due to sort of effects you describe – the simple, local, market forces that each individual is acting under the influence of.

    30 mins, worth a watch if you’re interested:

    Last year Lessig abandoned his career-long campaigning on copyright reform to devote himself to the problems of institutional corruption in US politics because he percieved that he could never make any headway on the former problem whilst the latter problem still existed.

  5. Good points all over Adam – I can’t do them justice with a thorough reply this second, I am bushed and heading straight for the sofa with a takeaway, but I think I agree with your general perceptions all over.

    I was talking with a bigshot lawyer friend, and he said talking to your own MP will have absolutely bugger all effect unless dozens of people do it (for each MP.) Then they may start to notice, IF they think it’s going to be so unpopular that it is likely to make the difference between them as individuals getting re-elected or not. But since the majority of incumbent labour MP’s are already counting on going down next election, they are going to be even harder to sway then normal.

    He said the best course of action, off the top of his head, was to contact the bill’s sponsors (ie, Mandy et al) and find out what is motivating them to push it through, and write directly to that small group with your counter-arguments.

  6. [how much have I hijacked this – sorry dude. Anyways…]

    So, thinking about comment #1. Possibly the thing to do with an MP isn’t to ask him to change his mind but to swallow it and ask for some form of written commitment to looking into copyright reform in the next electoral term – ensuring that next time, the noisy people that need shutting up are on the right team.

  7. So, I’ve been thinking about this general subject a bit since reading these posts. I do hope that the length of comments isn’t limited because this is a biggy.

    I think that politicians, in most cases, are driven by a desire to improve the quality of life for their constituents. The way the political system works is that by doing that well, they ensure they’ll get voted in again next time round, by failing to do that they ensure the other guys get voted in. [Basically]. So I don’t think they’re necessarily by nature corrupt, dishonest or stupid, but sometimes to do one thing well, you have to do something else badly.

    Let me just say first that I agree with you 100%. The first time I ever downloaded copyrighted material through file-sharing was a few kids movies, can’t remember which ones. Anyway, I have Sky+ and these movies had been on Sky Movies and my son had recorded them and watched them over and over. But my Sky box was getting full and I wanted to delete them. So I downloaded them: I figured that having paid for the subscription to Sky Movies and Sky+ I owned the rights to watch them and with the exception of some possible quibbles over picture quality (actually I think what I downloaded was if anything less good than what was on Sky) what I had downloaded was identical. I burned them to DVD and deleted them from my Sky box and in doing so, removed any evidence of ever having owned the rights in the first place. So I’m a perfect example of the innocent victim you portray in your argument.

    There is a problem here, in that the way we consume material has outgrown the legislation. The pain of that problem, however, is felt by two camps: people like me who don’t like to break the law but want to clear down the Sky box (and other similar requirements) and corporations who want individuals to buy stuff and are finding that people are buying less stuff because they can get it for free. Now, I know that that last sentence (the corporations who.. bit) is like a blue touch paper in this debate but just putting that to one side for now…

    My point is that that pain is felt by two camps and neither of them is the government. They have no pain, so see no great problem, it’s just something that is going on. Now, I’m prepared to be shot down here but my theory is this: that’s not the problem they’re trying to fix with the digital britain bill. I think they’re trying to improve access and quality of provision and content of all digital media for the population and create a platform for growth of digitally delivered services whether they be for entertainment or more mundane stuff. ie, I think they’re trying to improve the quality of life for their constituents.

    I think that the problem that they have, the pain that the government feels, is that in order to do that they need the buy-in of a lot of large corporations. Now, I know that the company putting wires under the street isn’t the same as the company owning the recording rights of artists but they have a fair few mutual thumbs in each others pies. And if you want to get a load of corporations on board with your great digital Britain plan, you have to first stop them banging on about their file-sharing problem.

    So I think that’s the problem the government is trying to fix: how to make the corporations shut up long enough to buy into the important parts of the bill. And I think it’s a good way to solve it. Like your MP said, pretty unlikely that your actual law-abiding citizen will get cut off, an ISP surviving in a competitive marketplace isn’t going to take pleasure in cutting people off but this means that they theoretically could get cut off and that’ll be enough to make the corporations shut up. Then, if you’re lucky enough to get voted in next time round, you can start to take a look at the much meatier and more complex and international problem of copyright reform – after you’ve nailed this short term problem.

    I’m not saying I agree that that’s OK, just that I see the logic in it. I’m very against any law being created that has the basis of “it’s OK because it’s us in charge and we know that we won’t use these draconian powers”, but I see the need to do one thing and having your arm twisted into doing something unpleasant to get there. That’s essentially how we ended up with soldiers in Iraq, although that’s a whole other essay.

  8. Sounds to me like you didn’t fail. Sounds like he failed to listen. Frank Dobson is an intelligent man, I can’t believe he didn’t understand the points. Shame really. Good on you for trying.

    I think that in almost all cases, MPs have decided which way they will vote long before any public feedback reaches them.

  9. Well done .. I spoke to Frank this morning, and got a similar response. Part of the problem I think is that how copyright works in practice, and the fact that licensing is what creates markets, is largely unknown territory for politicians.

    So politicians are resorting to the simple formula: illicit downloads equals wrong equals thing to stop; rather than lack of fair licensing equals illicit supply equals time to reform licensing.

    Writing this up is really useful, we will need to create a guide to talking to your MP, taking note of the experiences people are having :)

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