Develop in haste, lose the election at leisure
Well, this is a first: returning to last week's topic because events have already overtaken it.
Last week, the UK government was conducting a consultation on how to reduce illegal file-sharing by 70 percent within a year. We didn't exactly love the proposals, but we did at least respect the absence of what's known as "three strikes" - as in, your ISP gets three complaints about your file-sharing habit and kicks you offline. The government's oh-so-English euphemism for this is "technical measures". Activists opposed to "technical measures" often call them HADOPI, after the similar French law that was passed in May (and whose three strikes portions were struck down in June); HADOPI is the digital rights agency that law created.
This week, the government - or more precisely, the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills - suddenly changed its collective mind and issued an addendum to the consultation (PDF) that - wha-hey! - brings back three strikes. Its thinking has "developed", BIS says. Is it so cynical to presume that what has "developed" in the last couple of months is pressure from rights holders? Three strikes is a policy the entertainment industry has been shopping around from country to country like an unwanted refugee. Get it passed in one place and use that country a lever to make all the others harmonize.
What the UK government has done here is entirely inappropriate. At the behest of one business sector, much of it headquartered outside Britain, it has hijacked its own consultation halfway through. It has issued its new-old proposals a few days before the last holiday weekend of the summer. The only justification it's offered: that its "new ideas" (they aren't new; they were considered and rejected earlier this year, in the Digital Britain report (PDF)) couldn't be implemented fast enough to meet its target of reducing illicit file-sharing by 70 percent by 2012 if they aren't included in this consultation. There's plenty of protest about the proposals, but even more about the government's violating its own rules for fair consultations.
Why does time matter? No one believes that the Labour government will survive the next election, due by 2010. The entertainment industries don't want to have to start the dance all over again, fine: but why should the rest of us care?
As for "three strikes" itself, let's try some equivalents.
Someone is caught speeding three times in the effort to get away from crimes they've committed, perhaps a robbery. That person gets points on their license and, if they're going fast enough, might be prohibited from driving for a length of time. That system is administered by on-the-road police but the punishment is determined by the courts. Separately, they are prosecuted for the robberies, and may serve jail time - again, with guilt and punishment determined by the courts.
Someone is caught three times using their home telephone to commit fraud. They would be prosecuted for the fraud, but they would not be banned from using the telephone. Again, the punishment would be determined by the courts after a prosecution requiring the police to produce corroborating evidence.
Someone is caught three times gaming their home electrical meter so that they are able to defraud the electrical company and get free electricity. (It's not so long since in parts of the UK you could achieve this fairly simply just by breaking into the electrical meter and stealing back the coins you fed it with. You would, of course, be caught at the next reading.) I'm not exactly sure what happens in these cases, but if Wikipedia is to be believed, when caught such a customer would be switched to a higher tariff.
It seems unlikely that any court would sentence such a fraudster to live without an electricity supply, especially if they shared their home, as most people do, with other family members. The same goes for the telephone example. And in the first case, such a person might be banned from driving - but not from riding in a car, even the getaway car, while someone else drove it, or from living in a house where a car was present.
Final analogy: millions of people smoke marijuana, which remains illegal. Marijuana has beneficial uses (relieving the nausea from chemotherapy, remediating glaucoma) as well as recreational ones. We prosecute the drug dealers, not the users.
So let's look again at these recycled-reused proposals. Kicking someone offline after three (or however many) complaints from rights holders:
1- Affects everyone in their household. Kids have to go to the library to do homework, spouses/'parents can't work at home or socialize online. An entire household is dropped down the wrong side of the Digital Divide. As government functions such as filing taxes, providing information about public services, and accepting responses to consultations all move online, this household is now also effectively disenfranchised.
2- May in fact make both the alleged infringer and their spouse unemployable.
3- Puts this profound control over people's lives, private and public, personal and financial into the hands of ISPs, rights holders, and Ofcom, with no information about how or whether the judicial process would be involved. Not that Britain's court system really has the capacity to try the 10 percent of the population that's estimated to engage in file-sharing. (Licit, illicit, who can tell?)
All of these effects are profoundly anti-democratic. Whose government is it, anyway?
Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on Twitter, or send email to email@example.com.