As he stood in the Royal Society of Arts’ Great Room, adorned by James Barry’s celebrated paintings The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture on the upper walls, I wondered whether Stephen Carter’s work had afforded us any real progress in either knowledge or culture. The final Digital Britain report feels more like the usual mangled series of ongoing compromises that has lost the pioneering innovation edge that the debate around the interim report suggested it might at one point have aspired to. The news of his imminent departure from government doesn’t do much to encourage confidence.
One of the key messages coming out of the final Digital Britain report was that Lord Carter would like to see Ofcom given further powers to implement technical means to reduce file-sharing and prevent online piracy. There are a number of serious concerns about this which need to be addressed.
Carter’s views on an approach to file-sharing are worth exploring. At one point during the launch, he explained that he saw a spectrum of views on file-sharing which he described as having, at one end, the “nay sayers who believe that nothing can be done about it and so let’s just move on and those that believed it is morally wrong and who want something done to prevent it.” Carter positions himself firmly at the latter end. But, and I quote Carter again “let’s try to be rational about this as opposed to irrational which is so often the British way.” Indeed.
The spectrum Carter depicted is a confused one. There is a moral spectrum which at one end has liberatarians and others who believe in a highly extended version of “fair use” and a notion that file-sharing without remuneration is acceptable – and at the other end those that think that file sharing is morally wrong and should not be allowed. Of course, if a creator says “share my files freely – I don’t mind” then there can be no moral wrong. If he or she is silent on this matter which mostly they are because they’re all as confused about this as the rest of us, then we enter the terrain of debate.
The moral question is quite separate from the technical one which has its own spectrum of belief. At one end sit those who say “copying of digital media may be slowed but never prevented” and at the other end of the spectrum are those who say “it must be stopped and we will find stringent technical means to do so.” But of course the more morally outraged you are, the more you are prepared to invest in seeking technical solutions and going head to head with rational scientists who say it can’t be done.
There is a third spectrum of opinion to line up here too – the commercial spectrum. At one end of this spectrum sit those who say “file-sharing is really helpful, it is promotional and people who file-share often spend more on digital media than those who don’t”. Their motivation to seek preventative measures is clearly quite low. At the other of the commercial spectrum are those who say: “This is theft and it is damaging our business because file-sharing is substituting for sales and therefore must be stopped.” Their motivation is quite high.
I’ve tried to express this debate in a simple graphic:
I’m more than happy to have anyone who wants to elaborate on this. I have tried to maintain its simplicity for the sake of clarity, but really I ran out of dimensions. After all, you may well believe, as I do, that file-sharing is immoral but not believe that it damages businesses particularly badly or that preventative measures are technically feasible. Equally, you might feel as many kids do today that it’s not morally wrong, it does no-one any harm and there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.
Lord Carter’s high moral belief in this is of course in tune with the times. We are entering a new era of economic austerity, but also of high moral outrage brought on in the UK by both our bankers and our members of parliament. Illegal file-sharing sits on the other side of the table from the bankers and MPs’ scandals. Here is a proud and venerable industry, which would never dream of engaging in any kind of behaviour contractual or otherwise that people might think of as “immoral”, which has suffered unwarranted and crippling blows arising from the “wrong and immoral” behaviour of hundreds of thousands of consumers. The music industry maintains proudly that illegal file-sharing is 95% of the activity out there and that is why they have lost so much value. The fact that hard disc sharing, blue tooth sideloading, and simple e-mailing of mp3’s is likely to equal if not exceed the amount of material that is file-shared does not enter the argument. The moral argument is in tune with the zeitgeist but it ignores its own complexity. What do we say of the student who downloads 15 albums but doesn’t listen to any of them? What of the student that downloads two albums and then goes and buys the CDs afterwards?
When the Digital Britain report refers to the prevention of “egregious offenders”, what does it mean and how will we know an “egregious offender” when we see one?
I have two concerns about the proposed provision of further powers to Ofcom. The first is about privacy and the second is about the consequences of these actions.
In relation to privacy we are facing some of the most complex tensions of opportunity and challenge. The capabilities of companies like Detica to carry out deep packet inspection (DPI) and see almost anything that they want flying across a network are troublesome to civil liberties and privacy. This kind of company is employed by our national security services to spy on potential militants, agitators and forces of evil intent. Should we feel comfortable that such powerful probes should be deployed against consumers and fans of music or TV shows too? If you’ve done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear comes the old reply – but if in the dystopia of Orwell’s 1984 it didn’t make Winston Smith feel too comfortable – why should we feel any different? At the same time, of course, the power and sophistication of data processing and analysis could have immense benefits for contextual advertising and content discovery. If only Phorm hadn’t screwed up their opt in opt out procedures so badly we might all be feeling better about this end of the spectrum.
The second concern is about consequences. The folk at Pirate Bay have allegedly already launched their encrypted paid for service which will enable all their users for a small fee, to render all their transactions anonymous and impenetrable. That suddenly places teenagers and students in a far more dangerous kind of environment where much more seditious material is likely to be flying around and showing up unexpectedly in search results, etc. It’s precisely the kind of environment we would really have considerable social and security concerns about, but it would be much less easy to control or supress.
So we do live in a troubled time where the positions on these different axes do not point to clear or simple solutions. Many artists feel highly conflicted in discussions of this kind. They do not wish to see the very fans with whom they are trying to develop longterm relationships, turned into criminals for listening to their music. At the same time, they feel very strongly that work they have produced should not be exploited for profit by anyone who is not contracted to them in some way.
My personal belief is more carrot and less stick. The development of businesses that can attract customers with delightful services that are a pleasure to use will be the real way to win this struggle, not by giving more government agencies even more draconian powers to spend tax payers money on technical measures that will only serve to divide us further from each other and send our children into deeper darker undergrounds. We need to continue lobbying against the recommendations in Digital Britain – a lot more balanced thinking is required here about how to encourage the true potential of digital UK .