The day democracy died

05Apr10

I greatly fear that tomorrow, Tue 6 Apr 2010, will go down in history as the day democracy died.

I am of course writing once again about the Digital Economy Bill [1] in the UK, and its big brother ACTA. Pieces of legislation penned by the lobbyists for media distribution companies and about to be rammed down the throats of their customers the general public. Pieces of legislation that are intended to protect corporate interests in cyberspace, but that have huge unintended consequences for freedom of speech and nascent innovation. Whoever said ‘never pick a fight with somebody who buys ink by the barrel’ was spot on. How ironic that this is about a world where there is no ink, and the only barrels to be seen are thrown by Donkey Kong.

I must confess here that I was naive and complacent. When the bill was formally announced in the 2009 Queen’s speech I thought that there was no chance it would make it through parliament before the looming general election. I thought that it was part of a vanity parade, where each department had to have a slice of the pie on their big day, but that this government would have more important things to see to in its dying days. I thought that the proposed legislation was too fatally flawed to make its way through parliament, that the abandonment  of the consultation process that was supposedly behind the bill would fatally wound it before it got anywhere. I thought that the process would slow it down too much, that it simply wouldn’t get through in time.

I was wrong on every count, and looking back to the summer I wish I had joined the fight sooner.

It is now clear that this is the keeper – the one bill that this government is hell-bent on ramming through. Baron Mandelson (of Modor) has a busy portfolio, but it seems that most of his energy has been expended into seeing this one over the line.

It’s now clear that there is no effective opposition to the bill. The Tories are just as in bed with the media lobby as New Labour, and the Lib Dems changed sides too late to offer much hope of repairing the earlier damage that they wrought. Without an effective opposition it doesn’t matter how defective a piece of legislation is. Sadly it seems that the main UK political parties are too often in violent agreement on what should be contentious issues.

Worst of all this bill has laid bare the damage accumulated over the last thirteen years on Britain’s parliamentary process. New Labour would never have been able to become the new crime a day sausage machine that it is without tearing the obstacles of due process out of their way. Much was made of the changes to who sat in the house of Lords, but I mustn’t have been paying attention to the part where they changed roles to tenderising the sausage before it goes through the machine rather than checking on quality when it comes out. I still thought that the Lords could send back bad legislation to the commons (at least for a few iterations), and that’s just not true any more – the process has been ‘streamlined’ in a way that must be the envy of every tin pot dictator on the planet.

I feel it would be over-egging the pudding to say that there’s been a popular backlash over the last few weeks. Yes, tens of thousands of people have written to their MPs, but I fear that the die is already cast. The digital early settlers that I count myself amongst have fooled ourselves that we have power, that what we say on social networks, in blogs etc. has real impact, that we reach millions at the click of a search button. It’s not true though; the digital natives seem to be just as unaware (or uncaring) of what’s going on as the analogue generation for whom popularity is defined by the talking head on TV (regardless of whether that TV signal is analogue or digital). It leaves me wondering if the media industry are in such a rush over this one because they sense that it’s their last chance?

As I said after my talk at CloudCamp London, I really hope that in a few weeks time I’ll be the idiot who was making a fuss over nothing. At this stage however I really fear that I was just too late, or even that I joined an impossible fight. The dark side to this legislation is that it hands control of the Internet or an Orwelian government machine. When Britain, the supposed home of democracy, becomes like China because the spin doctors and their cronies made it seem like a god idea then we all have something to fear, wherever we live.

[1] I’ve stopped linking to the Wikipedia entry on this, as it seems to me that nobody is keeping in top of the detail, and there’s much better coverage elsewhere. At this stage I can particularly recommend JP’s Blog.



2 Responses to “The day democracy died”

  1. 1 Sean

    Great post. Now I’m not so naive not to be aware that I live much of my life in a pretty small and privileged echo chamber and that my concerns often wouldn’t resonate with the broader public. And yet I can not for the life of me understand why any elected politician would vote for this piece of crap, and I am utterly flabbergasted that – in an election period – the opposition hasn’t made this into a huge issue dividing them as bright shining knights from the tired, old corrupt forces of a disintegrating regime. What on earth is David Cameron thinking???

  2. 2 Chris Swan

    I expect David Cameron is thinking even more clearly about his future personal wealth than Tony Blair was 13 years ago. For that reason it suits him to appeal to small ‘c’ concerns much more than he’ll ever care about a long term future for Britain built on tech startups and the net.

    Despite all the BS in the press I feel that the best outcome would be a hung parliament as it will force the whole sorry lot to start thinking about policy rather than personal enrichment. In that scenario the Lib Dems will be the key power brokers, and whoever they pair up with will have to concede electoral reform down the PR route, which I hope may finally get us off the two party see-saw.


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