Digital Politics – The Tom Watson Interview

Written by Ben Hardwidge

July 7, 2011 | 07:45

Tags: #digital-economy-act #drm #gamers-voice #interview #mp #stop #tom-watson

Companies: #bit-tech #parliament

The Analogue Culture of Westminster

Bit-tech: Do you think that a lot of politicians, particularly in the last parliament, aren't adequately educated about digital copyright?

Tom Watson: Yes, the whole area of digital copyright is fiendishly complex, and unless you're willing to dive into a very deep lake of information, you end up making decisions based on quite ill-informed judgments. Contrasted to that, there is a massive steam-roller of a copyright lobby based around the music industry, but also in other publishing sectors as well, which bombard MPs day-in day-out with very hard messages about copyright enforcement.

So yes, we were woefully ill-informed in parliament, but again that's set to change, because there's a growing group of citizens who aren't going to accept their share of the copyright settlement that's been around for the last half-century, and their voice is getting louder and stronger. At some point they'll be strong enough to ensure that politicians respond to that, but we're not quite there yet.

Digital Politics – The Tom Watson Interview Tom Watson - The Analogue Culture of Westminster

BT: Is this also a symptom of the general culture of Westminster. Is everything really still done with pen and paper in parliament?

TW: It's a mix actually. To be fair, I would say that most MPs now are email-literate. In fact, the challenge at the parliament is that there's a kind of tyranny of email – I get around three or four hundred emails a day, so how I manage my own throughput of information is actually a very big pressing issue, and we've not quite responded to that. However, when I say to colleagues that for most people under 25 email is an old technology, and they use instant messaging systems, it's revelatory, so they're not really ahead of the times.

BT: Why is that, do you think?

TW: I just think it's a traditional institution. It takes time for big cutting-edge technologies to have an impact. So there's woefully inadequate Wi-Fi in the building, for example, and of course there are security issues that are particularly relevant for parliament, but they're not insurmountable. You also only get the one choice of Internet Explorer on the parliamentary system, and that's it. Given that this is an institution that basically works on access to information, there's no idea that most researchers are essentially web workers who should be entitled to a choice in the way that they access information on the Net. It's really sad.

BT: How has the Internet changed politics?

TW: It's made it faster and more intense, certainly, and it's made it 24-hour. It's undoubtedly made it global, and it's also made it more intrusive. All of those things are generally good, and sometimes they can be very bad. It's also definitely made MPs more accountable – I regularly get emails from people who've seen what positions I've taken on votes via the excellent, so it's opened it up a bit.

Digital Politics – The Tom Watson Interview Tom Watson - The Analogue Culture of WestminsterAccording to Watson, Parliament still has 'woefully inadequate' Wi-Fi, while its computer system insists that you use Internet Explorer

BT: You've often been described as a 'proper blogger', and you also bet David Cameron £100 that he wouldn't still be blogging a year after he started WebCameron, which you lost. What's the difference between a 'proper' blogger and a political opportunist?

TW: David Cameron isn't blogging now, and to be fair I don't think he was really blogging then, but at the time it was better to pay the bet off rather than quibble over semantics. The term 'proper blogger' to me is generally used to take the Mick out of me by my good friends on the Tory right, and actually I don't use a blogging platform that much now – I use Twitter and Facebook.

Politicians who use social media have to realise that platforms like Twitter and Facebook are essentially giant listening platforms, rather than broadcasting platforms. Unless you're prepared to engage, and give a little bit more insight into your working life than you do using other media, then it's not really a fruitful use of technology.

For me, I just find it totally invaluable. Certainly when I was a minister with some responsibility for digital policy, I can honestly say that on Twitter - a lot of people in the digital industries started to follow me, and I followed them – not a day went by when I didn't gain some insight into the policy area for which I was responsible. It was immensely useful and incredibly rewarding.

The key question is whether you're prepared to use these tools to engage. That's not to say you have to be on call 24 hours a day – people are quite sensible if you've had a bad day at the office – they don't expect you to respond immediately – but they do expect you to show a bit of respect, and hopefully I do. Not all politicians have quite grasped that yet.
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