Digital Economy Act: Letter to Lord Clement-Jones

Posted on 10/04/2010


Dear Lord Clement-Jones,

I’m writing to ask you to oppose the Digital Economy Act, which was recently passed in the wash-up session at the House of Commons. As with many other countries, Britain’s future will be a digital one, and so I consider this legislation to be as important as any bill concerning the economy. As less than half of the house attended the vote, the bill was not adequately debated and questioned before being passed.

Over the past 5 years there’s been tremendous growth in an area of the Internet commonly referred to as social media. The term itself is just a label, and it doesn’t adequately describe the variety of websites and networks that it covers. However, they have one thing in common: sharing. Whether it’s videos, photos or news about friends, these websites have allowed normal people* (*people with moderate levels of computer skills) to create, build and contribute to the world wide web.

Referred to as both Crowd-sourcing and the Creative Commons (a non-profit organisation devoted to expanding the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally and to share), this is one of the most powerful social tools digital technology offers. This collective force has allowed the Internet to grow organically and it now exists along side people’s “real” lives. In 2010 we still refer to conversations as “on-line” and “off-line”; in the future there will be no “off-line”. This is why any legislation passed must be forward thinking and innovative as it will be used in a rapidly changing society.

With the ability we now have to create and share online, there is less and less to distinguish the artist from the hobbyist. Amateur musicians are just as likely to have a My Space presence as a band signed with a major record label. Citizen journalists are just as popular as professional journalists who work for a national newspaper or magazine.

With such an expansive grey area between professional and amateur, we have to reconsider the issue of rights and ownership. User generated content such as amateur films on You Tube are free and open to all. What’s more, they earn Google the website owners advertising revenue. At the same time, television channels have contracts with Google to share this revenue. Blogs are open to all, while newspapers and magazines are looking to offer access only to subscribers.

Is any of this information free and if not who owns it? When something (a photo, story or song) is put in the public domain, it becomes owned by the public. Prior to the Charles Perrault and the Brother Grimm, who wrote down some of the most classic versions of European fairy tales, the folk tale was shared by a collective and a community. Until they were written down, nobody possessed ownership rights.

There are understandable differences between the past and the present. Before the Internet, rights were more easily controlled by selling the medium itself (the newspaper, book, vinyl or video cassette). Now that technology has done away with the need for these vessels, there’s much more flexibility with how we access this information. You’re able to transfer music and e-books from your laptop to your mobile phone, reducing the product from a physical entity to digital information.

In the digital realm, this information can be copied and distributed with even more ease, which does threaten the rights of the producer. This information can be shared globally, but, once again, our old definitions of sharing and stealing don’t adequately describe what’s going on. When someone buys a novel, reads it and passes it on to a friend, is he or she infringing on the author’s copyright? When someone buys a CD and shares this with a friend, are they infringing on copyright? One of the best things about the technology developments of the past 10 years is the ability to share: information, news and experiences. Overly restrictive legislation will stifle this, and threatens the potential social renaissance that this could bring at a global level.

I ask you to consider more advanced, more innovative, and more astute approaches to this matter than the Digital Economy Bill presents. Internet service providers provide access to a huge amount of online information; why shouldn’t they return some of their revenue to the organisations that produce that information? If I choose to pass a song or video onto a friend, shouldn’t it be possible to transfer the file out of my possession as opposed to copying it? Ownership and media have changed and any Act on the digital economy needs to recognise this.

Yours sincerely,

Ed Hammerton