Digital hot potato buried under a paper mountain

AMONG the fine print buried in the paper mountain behind last week's Queen's Speech were some startling proposals.

Aidan Semmens

AMONG the fine print buried in the paper mountain behind last week's Queen's Speech were some startling proposals.

Highly undemocratic proposals that could radically increase Peter Mandelson's executive power. Or, of course, that of his (probably Tory) successor as business secretary.

Not surprising, perhaps, from the most Big Brother government we've had since Cromwell. But worth bringing into the light anyway.

The government's official headline on its Digital Economy Bill is: “Investing for the future: building tomorrow's economy today.”

From there it goes straight into talking about “ensuring a world-class digital future” and “maximising the benefits from the digital revolution”.

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Nice touchy-feely sentiments suited to the soundbite age. Advertising-speak which may mean something but probably doesn't.

The Bill goes on to tick various boxes that are linked, if at all, pretty tenuously.

This is a trick typical of all governments, to sneak their bad medicine through in a batch of stuff no one could object to.

So we get:

- A new duty for Ofcom to “promote investment” in public service media.

- The “enabling of investment” (whatever that might mean in practice) to update mobile and wireless broadband.

- Updated regulations to enable digital switchover for radio by 2015.

- Public service updates to Channel 4.

- Compulsory age ratings for all boxed video games designed for those aged 12 and above.

Well, OK, some people might object to some of that. But the real hot potato lies under the heading: “Tackling widespread copyright infringement”.

Now this is an important issue - and the rights and wrongs of it are not as clear-cut as either the government or many of its detractors seem to think.

The Canadian blogger Cory Doctorow is in no doubt about the Bill.

He declares: “This is as bad as I've ever seen, folks. It's a declaration of war by the entertainment industry and their captured regulators against the principles of free speech, privacy, freedom of assembly, the presumption of innocence, and competition.”

Even The Guardian, which might be thought to have a stake in preserving its copyright, says the Bill “is less about creating the digital businesses of the 21st century than protecting the particular 20th century business models used in music and film”.

Doctorow heads his scare piece with a picture of 17th-century witch-burning and says Labour plans to create a “Pirate-Finder General”.

It's pretty clear which side he's on in the battle between media moguls and the private file-sharers who fill YouTube and the like with “stolen” music and film.

But this isn't really a Robin Hood situation.

The people who make music or films, research newspaper articles, write books or take photos have a right to earn something from their efforts.

And while I'm generally in favour of the information-sharing that the internet has opened up, it has also seriously compromised that right.

It is now easy and commonplace to pass on - in other words, pirate - works created by other people.

On the flip side of the coin, the net has also opened up new opportunities for individuals to sell what they create.

Which, of course, is no consolation to the 20th-century media businesses which can no longer control artists' distribution.

Whether this is better or worse for the artists themselves is a patchy area containing every shade of grey.

Black-and-white government attempts at regulation cannot hope to cope with it.

Neither Mandelson nor anyone else has the power to put the genie back in the bottle. But that's not going to stop him trying.

He intends to force internet service providers to spy on their customers and turn in or cut off any they suspect of piracy.

For himself he wants “secondary” powers to create new offences, new punishments, new “duties, powers or functions” without having to draft new laws or get them passed.

He wants a free hand to make up the law as he goes along. Without parliamentary debate.

See what I mean about undemocratic?

Doctorow underlines that point by describing Mandelson as “unelected”. Which isn't quite right.

He was elected in 1992 as MP for Hartlepool, re-elected in 1997 and 2001 and remained in the Commons until 2004.

It's only since Gordon Brown brought him back into the government in October 2008 by handing him a seat in the Lords that he's wielded power by appointment only.

Doctorow, who takes an international interest in such things, describes Mandelson's plan as “the most radical copyright proposal I've ever seen”.

But then Doctorow's own proposals aren't exactly conservative.

He believes copyright laws should be “liberalized” to allow for free sharing of all digital media. And that copyright holders should only have a monopoly on selling their own work.

Which sounds neat in theory. And as impossible to enforce as the Mandelson plan.

GALILEO is indisputably one of the heroes of scientific inquiry in the long battle against enforced religious ignorance.

The fact that he was forced by the Catholic Church under torture to deny his own astronomical discoveries underscores that fact.

Which makes it delightfully ironic that two of his fingers have just turned up at auction and are to be displayed at the science museum in Florence.

Just as if they were the bodily relics of a Catholic saint.

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