Archive for April 2010

A terrible week for the internet

April 8th, 2010 — 7:20pm

Yesterday the Digital Economy Bill passed its third and final reading in the House of Commons. It went through Committee Stage in a couple of hours as part of the end of term ‘Wash Up’, and will shortly (after a nod and a wink from the Lords) become law.

This bill is bad for Britain, bad for the internet, bad for music, bad for films, and bad for business. And here’s why.

The lobbyists and industry spokesmen who fought so hard during the Gowers review of Intellectual Property to get the government to introduce tougher sanctions against file-sharers did so because they wanted to protect/extend their existing business models: make film/album, burn it to a disc, market the shit out of it, sell it in shops. They didn’t do it because it would help artists or their audiences. They did it to protect their profits.

But what they know, and won’t admit, is that they can only protect this business model for a relatively short time. Soon, even with the support of a supine, spineless and incompetent parliament, they won’t be able to catch, identify or punish file-sharers (In fact, the whole terminology here makes me want to vomit. Do we prosecute book-sharers, or CD-sharers, or mix-tape makers? Do we demonise them?).

BPI estimates of lost revenue for album sales are ridiculous because they simply conflate the number of downloaded songs with ‘lost sales’. In fact, the overall picture is a complex one. Revenues from sales of physical records have declined, it’s true. But at the same time, sales of digital recordings and performance rights income have both increased. Labels receive a higher proportion of revenue from digital sales than traditional ones, and performance rights revenue increased 133% in America in 2008, according to the IFPI’s own figures.

But quite apart from the fact that you can’t make stupid comparisons between illegal downloads and lost revenue, there are much more important reasons why the measures in this bill, especially in the notorious Clause 18, which adopted the Gowers recommendations on ‘technical measures’ and what is euphemistically called a ‘graduated scale’ of punishments for filesharing or even for instances of ‘copyright violation’ verbatim, shouldn’t have been adopted.

Punishing people for sharing material in this way, even if you could reliably identify who did the sharing in the first place, is unreasonable, unethical, and counter-productive. It alienates potential audiences, prevents people from discovering new music or films that they like, pits them against the record labels, and encourages them to find more sophisticated ways of sharing material over VPN connections, encrypted servers, or, in extremis, simply by swapping hard drives.

But don’t just take my word for it. For a good summary of why this bill sucks, from a professional musician –

This is not to say that I support wholesale piracy. Of course not. But just because stealing is unethical doesn’t make it right to levy £50,000 fines or to disconnect people from the internet, potentially damaging their rights to free expression, free association and their ability to communicate, work and learn.

Trying to protect business models that no longer work harms the economy and stifles innovation. What the government should be doing is precisely the opposite, and they should have the strategic vision, and the balls, to try to make Britain a home to the new media businesses that will thrive in the 21st century. We need to encourage the Spotifys, the Twitters, the Bittorrents, to emerge here. Not pull the plug on them. We urgently need a proper debate about the reform of intellectual property and licensing laws for digital/online content, before Britain disappears back into the stone age. Of course we won’t get it. But if enough people protest, and join the Open Rights Group –, and 38 Degrees – we can still make a difference.

The manner in which this dreadful bill was devised, consulted on, introduced in parliament, debated, and voted on, highlighted at every stage the inadequacy, incompetence and venality of our legislative processes at their worst. The bare minimum of public consultation was carried out, and the recommendations of a small group of industry bodies were taken as gospel. The bill was hardly debated, despite large protests against it from furious artists groups, creative industries spokesmen and digital rights activists. It did not receive proper scrutiny and it was forced through as the result of a disgusting ‘sausage-making’ process in the last days of a corrupt legislature. A few MPs spoke against it, notably Tom Watson, who is to be congratulated, but otherwise this was a dark day for Parliament. It was clear throughout the ‘debate’ that few even knew what they were discussing, including the lamentable Stephen Timms, who spoke for the Government. And there were precious few members in the house who even bothered to turn up for the 3rd reading.

I personally feel guilty because I didn’t do enough, early enough, to protest. I should have written to my MP more often, joined in the protests outside parliament, and written about it earlier. Now we’re stuck with it, barring a miracle, and Britain is soon going to be a digital backwater. Well done, idiots. I hope you’re happy.

And as if that weren’t bad enough, earlier, the US Supreme Court also ruled against the Federal Communications Commission in its case against Comcast, striking a blow against net neutrality, and opening the door to a two-tier, or two-speed internet. More here (thanks, BoingBoing). Oy, oy, oy. Could it get any worse? If it weren’t for my eternal faith in the Web’s ability to mutate and slip out of reach of these tired, regressive fools, I would be depressed right now.

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SXSW (pt.3)

April 1st, 2010 — 12:04am

In the last two days in Austin I managed to see some amazing presentations. The highlights for me were the panel on post-digital media design with James Bridle from, Ben Terett from Newspaper Club and Chris Heathcote, anti-Mega: ‘Books, Spimes, Map amd Paper’. Unfortunately there was an exceptionally dense moderator who seemed determined to misinterpret everything the panel members said, and the final member of the panel, a guy from the design agency Stamen in San Francisco, didn’t know how to use a microphone. But it was still a fascinating discussion.

Mr Bridle was on top form, talking about his brilliant Fieldnotes SXSW 2010 –, which he put together in just a few hours using XML and InDesign. Two points he made really stuck with me: new technologies don’t abolish old ones, just re-define their purpose. So, digital books redefine what we use print for, they don’t make books irrelevant. And, the printed book or magazine now has a different temporal status because it can be produced so quickly, so easily, and for such specific uses. The Fieldnotes SXSW 2010 book was produced just for the festival. It was made just for that week. So, the printed and bound object is no longer something we need to think of as a) universal, or b) long-lasting.

Craig Mod was in the audience also, he of the brilliant essay about re-flowing text for different devices/media  –

Newspaper Club – – is one of my favourite ideas of the new digital publishing era. It basically allows anyone to make their own newspapers, to make personalised newspapers or just very short runs (or even big ones) but essentially it puts the tools of newspaper production in everybody’s hands. As Ben explained, Generation N is saying to the newspapers – ‘we have broken your business, now we want your machines’. Now you can create your own newspaper using whatever data or text you like. You can get your own personal paper about just about anything, just the way you want. Are you starting to see where this is going?

Jaron Lanier gave an amazing talk about the original vision for open culture and Ted Nelson’s ‘Xanadu’ idea of how the web should really work. He also ‘tooted his flutes’ (seriously, wooden flutes) which was quite bizarre but strangely refreshing after days and days of screen-based corporate presentations. He asked everyone to put down their laptops and phones, in that typically polite, Jaron-y way that he has, as if he would refuse even the minuscule violence of asking anybody to do something they didn’t want to. You can tell that he would suffer agonies if he ever discovered that he had trodden on a bug. His thoughts were fairly ramshackle, but he did give some very penetrating insights into the dangers of an online culture in which everyone is trapped in and defined by their oh-so-similar, formulaic Facebook profiles. The man is clearly a serious intelligence, even if he doesn’t necessarily structure his arguments very neatly, and even if his hair looks a tiny bit Thetan these days. At festivals like this you simply have to cram as much information and as much new experience and as many meetings and contacts in as you can. You get to digest them later, but first you must gorge.

The panel on Pervasive Games – ‘Rendering the Real World’, featuring members of the Umbrella Group and the Tweeture, was a huge success, and easily one of the most interesting discussions of the week. It was very well attended, and seemed to go over perfectly to the (mainly) US audience. The Tweeture had a whale of a time at  SXSW, not just featuring on BBC Digital Planet, but ending up in a bar with Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter. In fact, he was such a party animal by the end of the week that it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that, like Woody Allen’s Moose, he actually scored.

I bought a whole load of quite tacky souvenirs from a little shop on Congress Ave, run by a a little old lady who assured me ‘this is a family-oriented store’. The poster behind her was a picture of Edwards AFB with a runway covered in F-117 Nighthawk bombers, and the caption read: ‘Can Osama come out to play today?’ Mmmmm. I love the smell of Texas in the morning.

Then we went to see Motorhead. It was the perfect way to round off the whole trip; being sonically violated by a group of ageing rockers. Lemmy strode the stage in his cowboy hat, looking as if he had beaten Death at chess and then told him to go fuck himself. We stood in the mud at Stubbs’ barbecue shack and let the wild, thrashing songs blare over us and felt our eardrums pulsate in the deafening flood of electric sound. By this time we had all got to know one another well, to the point that screaming at each other and jumping up and down and thrusting our fists into the air and mouthing the lyrics at each other didn’t seem forced or uncomfortable at all. A week away in a foreign land with a group of strangers and all of a sudden you’re best friends. Curious.

I was very sorry to leave, and I tried to soak up as much of the glamorous, strange atmosphere of Austin as I could before we had to pack up and go. This was helped enormously by Duncan Speakman’s brilliant Subtlemob piece called: ‘As if it were the last time’, a kind of poetic and theatrical exploration of your surroundings, a piece of art that encourages you to concentrate on the moment, on the detail of the immediate present. You look at the ground, then slowly take in the sights and sounds all around you, and gradually you become aware of things you hadn’t seen before, of all the people, the buildings, the trees and lights, the music and the sky. It provides you with a chance for stillness in the middle of the crowd. It is a kind of hymn to the richness of the passing minute. You can find out more here:

And then, finally, after immersing  ourselves in this bubble of bright new things, this weird collection of the prophets of the future and all the cool new technology, it was time to go home. And all of a sudden it was not a moment too soon. We flew back via Newark, and as we came in to land we had a glorious view of the Manhattan skyline illuminated in the twilight. The Empire State Building’s upper storeys were lit up in Green for St Patrick’s day, and the rest of the glass-skinned buildings reflected the sunlight like mirrors of fire. The city called to me like a beacon, as if my blood was magnetised to it. I wanted to break out of the airport and swim across to the island and stay. But the fantasy passed and we whiled away an hour in a bizarre wine bar in Terminal C before boarding for the final leg and going our separate ways again.

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