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Thou shalt not steal

As we're so fond of saying, technology moves fast, and law moves slowly. What we say far less often is that law should move slowly. It is not a sign of weakness to deliberate carefully about laws that affect millions of people's lives and will stay on the books for a long, long time. It's always seemed to me that the Founding Fathers very deliberately devised the US system to slow things down - and to ensure that the further-reaching the change the more difficult it is to enact.

Cut to today's Britain. The Internet may perceive censorship as damage and route around it, but politicians seem increasingly to view due and accountable legal process as an unnecessary waste of time and try to avoid it. Preventing this is, of course, what we have constitutions for; democracy is a relatively mature technology.

Today's Digital Economy bill is loaded with provisions for enough statutory instruments to satisfy the most frustrated politician's desire to avoid all that fuss and bother of public debate and research. Where legislation requires draft bills, public consultations, and committee work, a statutory instrument can pass both houses of Parliament on the nod. For minor regulatory changes - such as, for example, the way money is paid to pensioners (1987) - limiting the process to expert discussion and a quick vote makes sense. But when it comes to allowing the Secretary of State to change something as profound and far-reaching in impact as copyright law with a minimum of public scrutiny, it's an outrageous hijack of the democratic process.

Here is the relevant quote from the bill, talking about the Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988:

The Secretary of State may by order amend Part 1 or this Part for the purpose of preventing or reducing the infringement of copyright by means of the internet, if it appears to the Secretary of State appropriate to do so having regard to technological developments that have occurred or are likely to occur.

Lower down, the bill does add that:

Before making any order under this section the Secretary of State must consult such persons who the Secretary of State thinks likely to be affected by the order, or who represent any of those persons, as the Secretary of State thinks fit.

Does that say he (usually) has to consult the public? I don't think so; until very recently it was widely held that the only people affected by copyright law were creators and rights holders - these days rarely the same people even though rights holders like, for public consumption, to pretend otherwise (come contract time, it's a whole different story). We would say that everyone now has a stake in copyright law, given the enormously expanded access to the means to create and distribute all sorts of media, but it isn't at all clear that the Secretary of State would agree or what means would be available to force him to do so. What we do know is that the copyright policies being pushed in this bill come directly from the rights holders.

Stephen Timms, talking to the Guardian, attempted to defend this provision this way:

The way that this clause is formed there would be a clear requirement for full public consultation [before any change] followed by a vote in favour by both houses of Parliament."

This is, put politely, disingenuous: this government has, especially lately - see also ID cards - a terrible record of flatly ignoring what public consultations are telling them, even when the testimony submitted in response to such consultations comes from internationally recognized experts.

Timms' comments are a very bad joke to anyone who's followed the consultations on this particular bill's provisions on file-sharing and copyright, given that everyone from Gowers to Dutch economists are finding that loosening copyright restrictions has society-wide benefits, while Finland has made 1Mb broadband access a legal right and even France's courts see Internet access as a fundamental human right (especially ironic given that France was the first place three strikes actually made it into law).

In creating the Digital Economy bill, not only did this government ignore consultation testimony from everyone but rights holders, it even changed its own consultation mid-stream, bringing back such pernicious provisions as three-strikes-and-you're-disconnected even after agreeing they were gone. This government is, in fact, a perfect advertisement for the principle that laws that are enacted should be reviewed with an eye toward what their effect will be should a government hostile to its citizenry come to power.

Here is some relevant outrage from an appropriately native British lawyer specializing in Net issues, Lilian Edwards:

So clearly every time things happen fast and the law might struggle to keep up with them, in future, well we should just junk ordinary democratic safeguards before anyone notices, and bow instead to the partisan interests who pay lobbyists the most to shout the loudest?

Tell me to "go home if you don't like it here" because I wasn't born in the UK if you want to, but she's a native. And it's the natives who feel betrayed that you've got to watch out for.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on , or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.


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