Last night, along with most of the geeks in the country, I watched the Digital Economy Bill get rammed through the Commons thanks to a combination of a whipped vote and some supine opposition. It’s not really worth me trying to articulate the combination of rage, frustration and disappointment that I felt, because others have done this far better than I can already. But once I’d had a few hours sleep, while I was walking the dog I managed to gather some thoughts coherent enough to be worth trying to type out.
What’s just been demonstrated is that with enough money and enough knowledge of how politics work, vested interests can completely capture the legislative process. You can see this by the fact that BOTH sides of the arguments around the DEB got something of what they wanted. The BPI wrote entire chunks of the bill, which must count as a success for them. And the anti-Clause 43 campaign managed to get the orphan works provision jettisoned, which surely counts for a victory of sorts against the corporate interests that were lobbying for it.
And this is something that causes me sleepless nights.
Within the lifetime of the next Parliament, it’s likely that global oil production will hit its peak (assuming that this hasn’t happened already). And here in the UK, power generation capacity is likely to fall considerably short of peak demand.
Our entire way of life in the West is soaked - drenched - in oil. It’s not just the obvious things, like petrol or diesel. It’s the less obvious - according to some figures I’ve seen, every calorie of US food production requires 8 calories of crude oil input. Fertilisers. Plastics. Pharmaceuticals. The list goes on and on. To cope with this, we’re going to have to change the way our society behaves in ways which are utterly fundamental. Ways in which I just can’t begin to comprehend.
So what’s this got to do with the Digital Economy Bill, and lobbying?
Because much of these kinds of changes that will be needed are going to be driven by legislation, and the legislation is going to collide head-on with enormous corporate vested interests. Those interests are going to lobby, and lobby at levels which make Mandelson’s dinner with David Geffen look like a Sunday School picnic. And what the DE Bill has shown us is that when the lobbyists get going, the politicians start rolling over. What business doesn’t want, society doesn’t get.
So I’ve got no faith at all that our current political process will be able to deliver the changes that are going to be needed, because they’re in lock-step with the vested interests that will be most harmed by those changes. By the time we’ve managed to overcome the inertia that this will cause, it may well be too late.
I’m emphatically not saying that the Digital Economy Bill isn’t important. It is, and it’s a very clear proxy measure for the kind of culture and society that we want to be. At the moment it looks like we want to be the kind of society that locks anything and everything of value away - that knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. That doesn’t value creativity, or cooperation, or anything that might conceivably not carry a profit motive. That sounds like a pretty bleak kind of place, even if it’s the stuff of a Murdochian wet dream. And it’s not a place I want to be part of.
But when the power grid starts faltering, copyright is going to look pretty trivial in the grand scheme of things. And I hope to Gods that we’ve got a political system that can cope with what our current way of life is going to throw at us in a year or two.