My, Probably Pointless, Opinion on the Digital Economy Bill

Sharing files over the internet is something most people my age have done. If they have an internet connection and have a laptop, by intention or accident, they’ll have illegally shared a file. I don’t mean music or films in the sense that thousands of movies and songs are shared, but even just a copyrighted image, or a piece of text copy and pasted, these things have been shared, kind of like copying a friends CD for your own uses. The problem starts when people are downloading beyond the slight breaches mentioned above, kind of like copying a hundred CDs a hundred times.

I’ll freely admit to download illegally, and used to much more regularly. When I was a student I bought hundreds of CDs, slowly building a rather shameful CD collection of Nu-Metal and Alternative that to this day I find both embarrassing but also, like recently, I like to return to. These CDs are in my parents, long hidden in the attic for several years, because I have a copy of them on my laptop. Of the 80Gb of music on my laptop a large proportion of it is legally mine and I bought the CD transferring it to my PC. If you were to take a look at the artists though, you’d find most of the CDs I owned back then don’t appear.

This is because when I moved into my first flat I went a bit crazy and downloaded a lot of music illegally – a direct result of having a fast internet connection, my own laptop, and limitless new bands to discover. I downloaded complete discographies of what are now some of my favourite bands. I did it because it was easy and free. I knew it was illegal, and I still did it because there was little to no way I would get caught.

That was in 2006 and now, in 2010, there is a law that is on the precipice of being passed that will make what I did then totally illegal. I say what I did then because now I don’t do it anymore. I use Spotify and eMusic and rarely, if ever, do I download something from the Torrent sites anymore. I’m not taking the holier than thou route though… that’s not the point. The new Digital Economy Bill uses un-evolved powers to make the sharing of the very files I routinely downloaded a few years ago actually illegal with new powers to punish those who do it. These powers include cutting of the internet connection and massive fines.

Is it right though? I think there are a few problems with the new laws that are actually quite fundamentally and catastrophically wrong – the first being the actual method in which the connection can be cut. The ISP has to provide the law with information if the request it – nay even be proactive about it because they can be hit with a much heavier fine otherwise. However you’ll loose the connection before being able to defend the charge, even if you are innocent. How is that fair or just?

The second problem is that even with these methods, people can still do it. Take Sweden for example. That country was rife with illegal sharers and downloaders, and the home of the Pirate Bay. The government there passed a law not dissimilar to our new one, and the usage of the torrenting sites dropped by 30% almost over night. A win, then, for the government you’d say, until the fact that usage actually recovered and increased after that initial dip. The users were wise to the risks, and started to use protection – encrypted, untraceable internet links to download and as such usage, now that people had no way of being even spotted, increased. That will happen here, of which I have no doubt – in some cases it already does.

The third thing that will cause the bill problems is the lack of education. Parents who have internet connections in their name are the ones that will be targeted – the bill payers, or the name sake of the connection, will be the ones forced to pay the fine. Parents don’t have the wherewithal to download the files, and don’t know how to and this means there is a large number who don’t know that their children do and even less still that will know the consequences. Of those that do know the consequences, an infinitesimal number of those have the computer knowledge to stop their kids from doing it. The government, instead of figuring a way to let people know (and warn) these populations of the risks, are going to punish them heavily.

Finally, it is the core problem of the bill and the concepts behind it – it’s too late. My sister, younger than me by four years, knows only downloading illegally on fast internet connections and Torrent files, and my cousin yet to enter the world of Torrents will only know that. I remember Napster and the long waiting times… and my father remembers actually having to wait for the release of music on physical formats. My point is this: you cannot change over night an inherent attitude to downloading, and by a Hammer Down approach is the worst way possible. How do you change behaviours set into the minds of million of people that don’t know any other way?

The answer is, of course, there is no answer. Illegal downloading will find a way no matter what. The government are too late with this law, and it’s the wrong law in the first place. Instead of stopping the downloading by cutting connections and throttling of speeds the downloading should be embraced either by a tax, an Internet License Fee, or some other similar concept. It is not going to go away, and this law isn’t going to make things better; it’s probably going to make it worse. Harder for those who share on a massive scale to be stopped, and those who only do it here and there will be hit worst.

Interestingly, this site shows Democracy in action. and my local MP, Anne Begg didn’t go.