The government is as clueless as the music industry about the Internet

Written by Antony Leather

April 10, 2010 | 10:48

Tags: #digital-economy-bill #law #politics

Companies: #government

So the Digital Economy bill has largely been passed here in the UK (except for a few loose ends). It's been a topic of conversation in countless online forums and indeed here in the office.

However, while there's something positive to be said for wanting to reduce piracy, and for the government at least taking an interest in the Internet, I'm not the only one to think the process by which this bill has been created, debated and passed into law is extremely worrying.
In one case, a list of 42 clauses were discussed and agreed upon in less than five minutes (that's one every 7.1 seconds). Even if the people involved in the debate were web experts (and let's face it, they have been known to think the IP in IP address stands for 'intellectual property'), five minutes is no where near enough time to properly debate that kind of information.

The government is as clueless as the music industry about the Internet The government is just as clueless as the music industry about the Internet
The House of Commons during a debate on the Digital Economy Bill - not exactly a full house

Watching any of the extremely sparsely attended debates on the TV and you could see politicians with simply woeful technical knowledge passing law that really depends on technical issues - for instance, as you probably know, if you use your net connection for pirating copyrighted material, that connection can ultimately be suspended - so what about shared connections? Some MPs did raise this (well done Fiona MacTaggart, for this speech in particular) but others thought it was impossible to crack your average wireless router's security, and weren't at all concerned about the fact that not everyone is tech-savvy enough to even make sure their wireless internet connection is protected.

The severe lack of knowledgeable on behalf of most MPs and the way the Digital Economy Bill has been passed - rammed through on the orders of the whips, right at the end of this Parliamentary session - is damaging, offensive and in some cases disturbing. It proves one thing: our politicians have very little understanding or even a regard for how the Internet works, how important it is and what its needs are.

The issues the UK faces are as wide ranging as they are important. Take speed for example; in January, it was reported that the UK ranks 26th in the world for broadband speed and even more optimistic data don't put us in the top 10.

A majority of ISPs have speed or download caps even if you're lucky enough to live near an exchange. In a time of public spending cuts, it seems unlikely this situation will be improved any time soon.

The list is pretty long, but the lack of interest and understanding is, amazingly enough, mirrored elsewhere. The music industry. It all kicked off big time with a little program created by a student at Northeastern University in Boston in 1999. Shawn Fanning's file sharing program, Napster, took the Internet by storm but the music industry completely and utterly failed to recognise the enormity of the problem. When it did eventually go on the defensive, it was far too late and far too aggressive.

Critically though, it totally failed to take advantage of the fact that people were actually quite partial to getting music online in favour of the high street and 11 years after Napster was doing the rounds, we still don't have a legal music download service that's proved as popular. Spotify might change that, but it's not available in the US, and while iTunes is good for some it's tricky to use with many MP3 players in addition to being rather bloated. Still at least Apple saw the light and on 24 February 2010, the iTunes store delivered its 10 billionth song download.

Instead of grabbing the bull by the horns and taking interest in something other than money and its existing business model, the music industry decided to ignore the problem. Instead of getting creative and leaving its outdated ways behind it, it was and still is content to let other people such as Apple, Spotify and The Pirate Bay sort it out.

I salute those MPs who didn't turn up in protest but in my view Parliament, by not properly debating the Digital Economy bill, is showing similar disregard and lack of knowledge of our online world. What makes this so infuriating is that it's a difficult subject and a solution has evaded everyone for over a decade, yet when it comes down to actually make decisions on the really important stuff, the government's attitude stinks. As it's the body with both hands on the reigns of progress, this is very worrying indeed.
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