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Thursday, April 08, 2010 

The epitaph of a contempible parliament.

There can be no more fitting epitaph for this parliament than the ramming through of the Digital Economy (sic) Bill, shortly to become Act, in the early hours of this morning. More or less actively written with the complete connivance of the British Phonographic Industry, an appropriate name for something that should be consigned to history, and UK Music through repeated lobbying sessions with Peter Mandelson, and supported by a rag-tag mob of trade unions that really should know better, this is a chillingly restrictive bill which is almost completely ignorant of how the internet works and which places a frightening level of power in the hands of potentially an unelected government minister.

Not only does it put in place demands on ISPs to warn and then cut off "persistent" file-sharers, which could in practice mean those who have accessed and uploaded/downloaded 50 files, disconnecting users from a service which is increasingly vital in the modern age for what is a civil rather than criminal offence, it also gives the secretary of state the power to block "any online “location” that “has been, is being or is likely to be used for or in connection with an activity that infringes copyright”. This about as broad a definition as could possibly be imagined - quite conceivably, Google or any search engine could fall under it for providing the links to file-sharing sites, or indeed, links to copyrighted files themselves. Video sharing sites such as YouTube actively infringe copyright on almost certainly hundreds of thousands of hosted videos, while online file hosters like Rapidshare et al, while also hosting perfectly legitimate material are filled with copious amounts of illegal content. Originally Clause 18 would have given this power to the High Court, which could have issued an injunction to the effect, but the rewriting now gives it directly to the culture secretary himself. The potential for abuse is remarkable, as are the possibilities for censorship: many have pointed towards Wikileaks, where the material hosted is almost always copyrighted but where the public interest should override such concerns when it exposes wrongdoing. Politically motivated silencing of dissent, covered by concern for the dear copyright holders, is eminently possible.

All this is being performed for an industry which only has itself to blame for its downfall. Even if digital rights management has mostly been abandoned by the music industry, it still refuses for the most part to offer a lossless alternative to the lossy digital formats it flogs online, while also now deciding that "new music" can't make them money. The result has been the all conquering rise of Simon Cowell and friends, presenting old music in a "new 'n' exciting" way, while only opening their wallets to copycats and the surest of sure bets. Mainstream music has over the past couple of years been dismal as a result; how else would mediocrities like Florence Welch and Lady GaGa rise to the top when neither can actually sing otherwise? The marketing of them has however been magnificent, which is about the only thing the industry does still do well, apart from the lobbying. As Jarvis Cocker had it, the response to the cream rising is that shit floats.

Speaking of which, the real outrage of the passing of the DEB is that 64% of the Commons couldn't be bothered turning up to vote at all. The bill was passed almost purely on whipped Labour votes, with only 4 Tories and 1 SNPer turning up to support it. Every Liberal Democrat that voted opposed the bill, but when only 16 even of them bothered to hang around in Westminster in a futile attempt to stop it passing it tells you something about their personal priorities. To be fair, even if every single Liberal Democrat had voted against the bill it still would have been passed with a clear majority, but surely in this instance it was the principle which was worth fighting for, especially against a politician having the power to close a site under such broad parameters. It's also an issue which us poor disaffected youngsters were actively interested in, something that might inspire those thinking that parliamentary, whipped democracy is a stitch-up, as this vote was, that their vote was worth using. Instead it will only underline the futility of putting any hope whatsoever in the vast majority of our elected representatives. If your MP voted against the bill, then it's another reason to consider voting for them; if they supported it, it's yet another reason for why they should be kicked out. The execrable, dissembling Denis MacShane, we're talking about you.

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As I have said elsewhere this morning, this bill shows how our democracy really works. They (the politicians) look you in the eye and tell you, you have as much say in our democracy as everyone else. Then they got to lunch with some lobbyist. Then, they write legislation. One day the entertainment industry will answer the question - How will kicking people offline convince them to spend more money on recorded music?

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