What would happen if we killed off BBC Have Your Say?

23 March 2010

If BBC Have Your Say didn’t disappeared tomorrow, would its users have invented it? As in, would they have set up their own site, community blog or forum, come together and created a site like it. Alternatively, if tomorrow the BBC HYS site fell off the earth, would its community of users come together to replace it?

Probably not. We may bang on about how the blogosphere has transformed UK media and that 13 out of 10 Britons have a blog (or whatever), but BBC Have Your Say fills a rather large gap that ordinary blogging & commenting does not. Why is this? Here’s a few reasons:

  • Lack of resources – it takes work to set up a blog and to maintain it. Not to mention the costs of hosting and the costs of moderation. Easier to leave it to the BBC & the licence payer to cover it.
  • Lack of time to write – to write regularly, to contribute regularly on a blog or community and help keep it alive, is a whole level of contribution from the much easier short comment the BBC offers.
  • Lack of tech-savvy – even the simplest of blogging systems such as Blogspot or WordPress have relatively complex backend UIs, not to mention the hassle of knowing HTML, choosing a nice template, etc. The BBC’s relatively plain and simple design takes that all away
  • Too general – the best communities have a unifying theme or topic, from supporting Raith Rovers to spotting electricity pylons. The latest news can be pretty much anything, so there’s no simple, unifying hook to bring that community together.
  • Too atomised – some communities don’t have specific unifying themes, but they do have unifying personalities – Mat Howie of Metafilter or Kevin Rose of Digg. But HYS is more anonymous and less personality-led.

For these reasons, a HYS-style site independent of the BBC is unlikely to come about, and it’s for these reasons Have Your Say is so insanely popular. And for Have Your Say, read any newspaper’s comments section – but there’s particular focus on the BBC here. Only the BBC has a public duty – to “inform, educate and entertain” – and this public duty gives them extra responsibility. But is Have Your Say a good thing? What are the consequences of giving everyone “their say”, and does it create a better or worse civic space?

The easy answer is ‘no’. HYS is quite famous for being regarded as low-quality. After all, there are no blogs devoted to the best of BBC Have Your Say (I even checked), but there’s at least one blog devoted to very worst of it, as well as a regular mocking in Private Eye‘s “From The Messageboards”. I sense the same attitude is held in much of the industry; at the recent(ish) Amnesty Technology and Human Rights seminar Kevin Anderson remarked that he considered the most animosity on the web came from the comments section of news websites, and from private conversations with colleagues and others, I get the feeling the view is shared by many.

But is this just snobbery? Are the ‘digerati’ like me and those who I mix with, who are technically capable and able to produce nice shiny blogs, just looking down on the plebs who comment on news websites with disdain? Is it all too easy to sneer?

Well, without trying to sneer or patronize too much, let’s look at what consequences the characteristics of Have Your Say outlined above have on the subsequent conversation:

  • Lack of resources and time – with time being brief, it’s easier to lapse into snap judgements. Shorter time also means less time to read up, research or otherwise gain a fuller perspective of what you’re talking about.
  • Lack of tech-savvy – on your own site, you control what it looks like and contains. But when the design and context that your contributions are placed is controlled by someone else, there is significantly less incentive to consider the place something you own.
  • Lack of specificity – without a topic or focus for the community, nothing is off-topic. And if nothing is off-topic then you can easily spin away into whatever bee there is in your bonnet, no matter how irrelevant it is.**
  • Lack of community – while news sites do force you to have a login and profile, most go no further. For those that do offer profiles (such as HYS or CiF) there is no incentive to build a profile; even if you do, profiles are usually little more than usernames, avatars and a history of comments; hardly something to be building a digital identity around, unlike a Twitter profile or account on a vBulletin-powered forum.
  • Lack of accountability – even sites like Metafilter or Digg and Reddit, those in charge have to respond to their users’ wishes given sufficient protests (and indeed pride themselves on it). For the large part, news sites like HYS leave their moderators anonymous (not even pseudonymous) and their internal workings opaque, which only created further resentment from users when they make an unpopular decision.

With these factors combined, you’re left with an awful lot of incentives for commenters (metaphorically) shit on their doorstep; there is no incentive to keep the site on-topic or relevant, nor is their any disincentive to maintain a coherent or courteous digital identity, coupled with an atmosphere of mutual hostility.

Incidentally, this is not even taking into account the users’ prejudices, or any agenda they may have for or against the politics of the news site in question (cf. the rabid resentment of the licence fee on BBC HYS). And then there’s the design of the site as well – a flat unthreaded commenting system combined with filtering by fellow commenters’ recommendation encourages herd thinking, polemic rather than conversation, the more controversial the better.

While those who design and run news sites may not have quite have analysed the news site comment as much as I have, they will know the TLDR version: controversy and bile brings about more hits! The Jan Moir Stephen Gately article was probably just intended to be the views of its author rather than deliberate linkbait, but it (and the limp PCC judgement that followed) had the undesired side-effect of showing what a bit of controversy can do for your hits. As long as you don’t break the law, there is no real short-term sanction for a media owner to stir up any controversy, no matter how inane.

But it also had a side-effect in undermining further our trust in the mainstream media in general. For all the mockery about Tweeting Twits or bloggers in their mothers’ basements, on the whole I find the social media world a more civil place than comments on news sites; this is partly by choice – there are some awful, awful gobshites out there in the blogosphere, but I can follow and subscribe to people I like to read (whether their views are congruent with mine or not) rather than have reactionary circle-jerking foisted upon use, glued to the bottom of nearly every news article I read.** It might spell more hits, but the law of diminishing returns hits in pretty quick.

Finally, back to the BBC. It is particularly relevant here, because while the degrading of a news platform’s reputation is bad news in the long run for Murdoch’s media empire and Lord Rothermere’s bank balance, in the case of the BBC it’s the degrading of a national institution, something we all have an interest in. Have Your Say, as it stands, is quite lacking when it comes to informing and educating, and only entertains in the sense of providing fodder for worst-of blogs. And it’s not as if the BBC needs the hits or ad revenue (in the UK, at least).

So why not stop pretending that anonymous bile about anything and everything counts as genuine ‘interactivity’ and take a lead in providing better managed communities around coherent topics, more well-focused user-generated content that rewards intelligent and civil debate, and provide interactivity with a purpose to inform, educate and entertain, rather than endlessly milking controversy for hits? Kill off Have Your Say, let the users flock elsewhere for their squabbling, and instead work on a platform that does something more constructive. The other news media might not follow, but after all, it’s the BBC’s job to be bolder than the rest.

* The best/worst example I can think of recently was this excellent Times article about German geeks trying to reassemble Stasi-shredded files with computer technology, prompting some utter knobhead to respond: We had better order half a dozen machines for us here in the UK Sooner or later (alas, probably later) we shall discover the full extent of NuLabours passion for “misinformation” and “misleading briefings” And it’s the top-rated comment, for fuck’s sake.

** The Readability bookmarklet is a wonderful boon to get rid of all the crap around articles, include the inane commenting, by the way.

Were you affected by this article in any way? Maybe you have an opinion of your own you would like to share. If so, then piss off and write it on your own blog. Just kidding – comments below welcome as always (as long as they’re on-topic)


Rotten from the bottom up

9 February 2010

This is part two and a counterpart to yesterday’s blog post, “Rotten from the top down

Yesterday I had a good long rant about the political system and “those at the top”. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of examples of this poverty of progressive ideas at the bottom.

Here’s one. Last week the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI announced a visit to the United Kingdom later this year. Almost immediately the National Secular Society came up with a petition that the Vatican should pay for the cost of the security for the trip. I voiced my unease at the whole thing on Twitter and promptly provoked a strong reaction from others.

For the record, I’m a sky fairy-averse atheist with strong views on a secular society; I think the Lords Spiritual should be scrapped, the state should stop funding religious schools and the ‘religious hatred’ laws repealed. But even I think that throwing a hissy fit and demanding that the Pope pay his own way is reactionary idiocy of the most backwards kind.

Let’s get out of the way first the obvious – the Pope is both a head of state and head of a religion and convention is that host states provide security for visiting dignitaries, regardless of whether it’s an official visit or not; indeed states are obliged to ensure the safety of any foreign visitor – tourists are protected by our laws and justice system, and don’t get billed by the police if they are in need of assistance. To demand that someone be barred from this country unless they pay extra, purely because you don’t like their beliefs, is as backwards and discriminatory as the Pope’s own views on homosexuality.

Quite apart from the double standard, the real idiocy is that the basis for this objection is not the principle, but the attitude: “Well, I’m a taxpayer, I don’t like it, so why should I pay for it?” Because once you start to think about it, there are lots of things your tax money goes on that you’d rather not be spent. Personally speaking, I’d rather we didn’t spend money on subsidising the arms trade, illegal invasions of Middle Eastern countries, or on an ID card system that won’t work.

But in each of these cases, the fact that money spent on them isn’t the basis of my objection to them. Why I object to is the affront to my principles and the consequences of those policies, whether it’s the the needless deaths of foreign civilians or the continued intrusion into our lives or the adoption of useless technologies. The money “I” have spent on it is secondary. Of course, tax money should be spent as efficiently as possible and those in charge of it must be held to account, especially when the sums are in the billions or more. But the debate on how to allocate resources should be based on the costs and the benefits, not merely on the snark “well this is going to cost me money, isn’t it?”

(Aside: it goes without saying we can never perfectly foresee all the costs, benefits and consequences of every government policy; but we should at least try our best to properly plan and account, else there’s no point to doing anything at all, ever).

This money-obsessed reactionary griping has its roots in Daily Mail-land, with endless stories of what you will have to pay, even if it’s being spent on people you don’t like. This is often cheerfully fuelled by mendacious right-wing think-tank, the Taxpayers Alliance. Of course they don’t represent all taxpayers (I don’t ever remember signing up to join them), and some of them don’t even pay tax themselves. The TPA’s aim isn’t to debate about what tax should be spent on, but to avoid paying tax as much as possible, and these “what a disgraceful waste of your money” stories are the easiest ways to get the misanthropic, aggrieved and generally selfish on their side.

This obsession with “why should I pay rather than them?”, rather than the reasons for how the money should (or should not) be spent for the national good, ends up poisoning the entire discourse. No government is ever going to spend every penny in a way that is agreeable to any specific person. And once you start picking at something you dislike, focusing on the cost rather than any of the reasons for actually having it, then anything is fair game. You end up not only obsessing about every aspect of government spending that displeases you but anyone’s spending whatsoever, whether its lottery funds or a public figure. You even start joylessly complaining about how much a spell of snow or a Friday off work will cost the economy.

Why do people do this? Well, paying tax is not like going to the supermarket. You can’t pick or choose which bits of the budget you’d like to support; the system is designed to cater for the things the market alone cannot fairly or sufficiently provide. The means of control and influence on this process is not as simple as switching brand of washing powder or baked beans, and for ordinary people it’s often a lot less direct and timely – whether it’s the ballot box, petition, the media, a pressure group or writing to your MP or another way.

And this is where the web comes along. The web’s instantness and wide audience create a natural home for venting impotent rage at the powers-that-be. An indignant “why should I pay?” on BBC Have Your Say or the Number 10 Petitions site is an easy and quick way of connecting yourself with a policy and its consequences. Garnering a rapid response of agreement from like-minded knee-jerk reactionaries acts as a soothing substitute for the lack of timely action through the more traditional channels.

To be fair, the political system is partly to blame for this lack of proper response. But by playing along with it, the antagonists are playing their part in debasing the debate. Crying about how it will cost you money is not only self-indulgent, but solipsistic; putting the cost to you at the centre of the debate precludes any sort of intelligent discussion about what the actual policy is, what the costs are to the country as a whole, what the benefits and savings are, who the beneficiaries are, what the cost of inaction is, or what better alternatives there could be.

This is probably a deliberate tactic by those who choose to do it. With many of the examples of it in action, whether it’s paying for the Pope’s security, fighting global warming, housing asylum seekers or having a day off work, the objectors are conveniently avoiding examining the issue or any sort of structured argument for their stance; resorting to the objection that this is costing them and they are outraged acts as a convenient smokescreen for their own prejudices.

And most ironically of all, by whinging about the costs and not the reasoning behind the policy, it’s also the surest way of making sure ideas and policies never get challenged or changed. Which might suit you fine, if you’re the kind of person who thinks moaning about your tax bill alone counts as a reasoned opinion, and if it weren’t for that would probably struggle to validate your political stance, or even your very existence. But I’d expect more from progressives and secularists than I do Daily Mail readers – sadly it seems in this case they’re slipping the same way.


Rotten from the top down

8 February 2010

This is one of a pair of related posts, the other is called “Rotten from the bottom up

I got into a political argument the other day. I don’t often do it these days, and looking back on it, I now know why – there is a poverty of ideas at the top when it comes to political debate.

I was talking to an assistant to a backbench Conservative MP who demanded to know that, as I held leftist and socialist principles, why I didn’t I always vote Labour. My answer, that I will stop voting for a party that abandons the principles I believe in, was met with accusations I was a floating voter. On hearing I used to live in Scotland, the demand changed to why I didn’t vote the ‘Scottish socialist alternative’ in the SNP; the fact I never would because I don’t believe in an independent Scotland, was met with further mocking of my flaky political worldview that was incapable of identifying with a political party and that I was incapable of influencing the process of political power.

Naïve though they were, it did betray an interesting example of how still the party political world works from an insider’s point of view. You’re poor or leftie, you must vote Labour. You’re rich or rectionary, you must vote Tory. You’re moderate on everything, vote Lib Dem. You live in Scotland, vote SNP. The prevalence of all of these stereotypes who how irredeemably tribal political parties are, and the discourse of modern politics bears this out – inevitably, come any political talking point on the television and radio, the discussion will soon become tainted with one side labelling it as “typical Labour” or “typical Tories”.

Take the recent bit of puerile and light-hearted fun, the mashups & spoofs of the new David Cameron poster on MyDavidCameron. Of course, it wasn’t long before it was picked up by left-wing bloggers and some of the spoofs were by Labour supporters, but for once the Labour party never attempted to own or control it officially. Inevitably, however, was the reframing by Conservative supporters as a Labour-backed smear, even though the site’s designer, Clifford Singer, has no political party affiliation; headlines such as “Who’s the nasty party now?” started appearing, and it provoke this hilarious, if it wasn’t be so tragic, riposte from an unnamed (as always) ‘senior Tory source‘:

“It’s typical that Labour felt they needed to airbrush our poster with this trickery. Clearly Labour spin is alive and well.”

It’s argument by numbers. It’s lazy, cynical and so typical of the day-to-day political discourse of British politics. Of course, this kind of tribalism in British politics isn’t a modern phenomenon; the adversarial nature of the House of Commons and a winner-takes-all approach to elections means it’s a practically inevitable feature, not a bug. But what has been a contemporary phenomenon is that increasingly, there is so little to split the parties, in terms of both their policies and the way they conduct themselves.

Take, for example, this gem from Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling at the last Conservative party conference (sorry for the anti-Tory bias in this post, by the way, but fuck it, there’s no better time to kick someone than when they’re on the up). News has just broken that former defence chief General Richard Dannatt has been signed up by team Cameron and promised a future ministerial role; Grayling mishears the interviewer and thinks that he has been signed up to join Gordon Brown’s cabinet and, well see for yourself:

There are three things that make this execrably awful for any intelligent observer. The first is the monotonously-delivered mix & match soundbite at the start – several easily-identifiable components assembled without thought. It starts with a fawning tribute to the military, something which is compulsory whenever discussing Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s followed by the mealy-mouthed “I hope this isn’t a gimmick”, when the truth is he’d love it more than anything else in the world to be a gimmick. Then there’s putting the boot in properly at the opposition’s tactics – Gordon Brown and his PR and the government’s suspicious motives.

The second, and arguably worse, thing is his retracting in the second half of the clip. He knew he’d been made to look like an utter tit. He knew he’d been found out. And yet he still had the barefaced cheek to say he was ‘delighted’ rather than sceptical by the appointment and he regretted that he couldn’t have given a ‘more enthusiastic’ welcome – when he had been nothing but enthusiastic to put the boot in on first mishearing the news.

Thirdly, and finally, and this is worse in a different way, is that the context behind the gaffe. It doesn’t matter which party is which. Both Brown and Cameron have made it clear they like appointing of unelected experts to their cabinets; both party machines know the value of a publicity stunt, and both parties have stock phrases for attacking each other for doing so. So no wonder Grayling thought it might have been a Labour stunt rather than a Tory one; and the same could equally happen in reverse – substitute ‘David Cameron’ in for ‘Gordon Brown’ and ‘opposition’ for ‘government’ and you have a Labour frontbencher attacking the Tories. It’s almost too easy to picture.

This comes at an odd time in politics, as the economy begins to recover from the most destructive bubble and bust of modern times. Often, one of the the legacies of economic and political crises is that new political lines and ideologies form; yet in the uneasy atmosphere after the crash, there has been no hardening of political divisions or clear water put between parties. If anything they have become closer; the coming election will be fought largely by politicians all promising the same thing – Cameron’s original pre-mockery poster promise has little difference to what the other parties are offering – public services good, public debt bad. During the MP’s expenses scandal, politicians of all colours were the subject of public scorn and rage – “they are all the same” was the common refrain.

The post-Thatcher economic model that has dominated the 1990s and 2000s relied on creating growth from ever-increasing levels of debt – either borrowings to be spent on consumer goods, or heavily leveraging that debt to buy businesses and homes – often to be paid for not by the future income from those investments, but on the capital gains from their putative rise in value. It didn’t just keep the banks in gravy and swell the Treasury’s coffers with tax receipts in the 1990s and 2000s, it was also what millions of Britons did to get rich as well; often the same middle-income swing voter Britons that political parties need to appeal to, and it is exactly this tame and materialistic worldview was what David Cameron was aiming for when he gave this speech a fortnight ago:

A fair society is one where everyone who works hard and plays by the rules has a chance to fulfil their dreams whether that’s owning a bigger house, taking a holiday abroad, buying a new car or starting a small business.

Actually, I lied. He didn’t say that. Gordon Brown said it. But it doesn’t really matter who did – that’s the point. With no ideological or visionary differences within mainstream British politics, and with traditional political grassroots seemingly abandoned for millionaire’s favours, what we’re left with is politicians competing for the right to manage the country and at best tinker with an economic model that almost destroyed itself. The differences are tokenistic at best (viz. the Lib Dems’ laughably populist and unworkable mansion tax) and leave a vacuum where other questions are unanswered. Is this really the best we can do? Are the ideals of the politicians’ middle-class managerialist culture all that we have left to aspire to?

Of course the politicians we elect should be reasonably competent at running things (although the onus should really be much more on the civil servants that execute their policy on a day-to-day basis, and the politicians’ skills in delegating). The problem is when management becomes not just one quality in a government, but championed as the sole quality for our politicians. We end up confusing good management with good governance, which in turns lead to a political class over-managing, convinced that their desired outcome is possible; if you could just get the system right, everybody will fall in line just right (vis. George Osborne’s love affair with behavioural economics). Those that get forgotten in all this are the actual people who you’re elected to serve – they will end being nothing more than datapoints, catalogued, indexed, surveilled and treated as statistics and targets to be logged in league tables, often at great cost and with little success (take the ongoing ID card and NHS IT system debacles).

The systems that the post-Thatcher consensus created have broken badly. So far in Britain there is little political will to reform them, or many of the other aspects of our society that need fixing or preparation for change ahead – I’ve talked about the economy but it could equally be global warming, energy security, an ageing population, the digital revolution, the rise of rival developing economies. Qualities such as creativity, bluntness, open-mindedness, humility and independence have largely become absent from politicians (of course, there are of course honourable exceptions, but none of them sit on the front benches) and they are essential for the challenges that lie ahead.

But let’s not blame it on them. We get the politicians we deserve, we elected the ones who conformed to the post-Thatcher consensus that was good while it lasted and we ignored the hidden pitfalls. Now those pitfalls are apparent, it’s time to start reconsidering the whole deal.


Facebook’s loosening sense of privacy

14 December 2009

I am quoted in this weekend’s Financial Times, in Tim Bradshaw‘s article about Facebook’s new privacy settings [registration may be required]:

Chris Applegate [...] was dismayed to discover that applications installed by his friends could see his data unless he chose to opt out, an option not given in Facebook’s latest reminder. “I’ve always kept a tight rein on the apps I install. But it only takes one friend to install a malicious app and . . . my information is compromised,” he said. “There is a great potential for leakage.”

Tim & I had quite a long chat and obviously he couldn’t include it all, so here’s a bit more information about the situation. It all came about from a chat on Twitter I had with Kathryn Corrick; a few days ago I had seen a popup dialog on Facebook asking me to update my privacy settings; I could keep the old ones or (as suggested) I could make more of my Facebook details public.

I’ve taken care to keep much of the private data on my Facebook account properly private; my public profile is quite limited and only friends can see anything I want to keep personal. Seeing no reason to change this, I kept the settings as they were and left it that. But then a few days later, in our conversation Kathryn warned that there were new privacy settings added in, so I checked it out. And lo and behold, there’s a section I hadn’t seen before, in the “Applications and websites” section, called “What your friends can share about you through applications and websites”:

Facebook's friend's applications and website privacy settings

I am nearly certain this page did not exist before (this comment on Mashable remarking on its newness seems to agree). I try out a lot of Facebook apps and then ditch them, so I periodically check my settings to make sure they’re not still enjoying privileges on my data (Facebook apps retain permission to access your data even after they are uninstalled, presumably in case you want to install them again). I don’t recall seeing it then, and I definitely was not asked about these new privacy settings in the migration process, during which I just asked to stick to my old settings – as this how-to or indeed Facebook’s own tutorial video bear out.

Allowing my friends to look at my status updates & interests via the web or mobile interface is fine by me – else Facebook is pretty useless to them. But allowing apps or websites they have installed or allowed to access this data is another level entirely; all it would have taken would have been one friend who is not so tech-savvy to install a malware-infected app and my data would have been at risk, regardless of how careful I am with what I install. Even more alarmingly, the default options are to be very open about this information; Facebook assumes you want to share nearly all of this data with your friends’ applications by default – as you can see above, only two of these (Family/relationship & religious/political views) are excluded from being ticked.

So my advice? Re-review your privacy settings, especially the applications and websites section; pay special attention to the applications you have installed – the ‘Learn more’ button is a misleading link which eventually leads to the page that allows you to check these; pay extra-special attention to the ‘what your friends can share about you’ page and uncheck all the boxes you are not comfortable sharing with applications your friends may install (depending on how tech-savvy your friends are and how much you trust them to not install anything malicious) – I strongly recommend doing this part especially.

To round off, it’s worth remembering that Facebook is not a charity; it is a commercial venture that has always existed to take the userdata it has acquired and sell advertising based on it, a very old-school way of making money on the web. Whereas on the other hand, for years the more enlightened have been talking of open web services and APIs and the ability to mash up data from a variety of sources, and creating value from that. In many ways the Facebook application platform is fast becoming a combination of the worst elements of these two differing attitudes – the craving to make money no matter whether it might endanger their long-term interests, and the craving to share data without any respect as to what that data is or who it is meant for. Facebook are not being evil or stupid, but they are being remarkably casual with user privacy; they ought to remember that no-one running a site that relies on the goodwill of its users can afford to take them for granted for too long before their users find somewhere else to go.


“Piracy” and “anti-piracy”: A brief history from the Dark Ages to the Early Modern era

4 December 2009

A second blog post in a week? Blimey.

The pejorative term ‘pirate’ is often used for those who infringe on copyright, and I’d assumed (for some reason) it was a modern term; maybe stemming from the pirate radio of the 60s, made popular in the Home Taping Is Killing Music era, etc. Turns out I was wrong by nearly 400 years.

In English, the word ‘pirate’ dates from at least the late 14th century, but the first recorded use of the word to mean an intellectual property infringer rather than marauding sea bandit, is by Elizabethan author Thomas Dekker; in his The Wonderful yeare (1603), among the excessively flowery prose in the introduction, he fulminates:

Banish these Word-pirates, (you sacred mistresses of learning) into the gulfe of Barbarisme: doome them euerlastingly to liue among dunces: let them not once lick their lips at the Thespian bowle, but onely be glad (and thanke Apollo for it too) if hereafter (as hitherto they haue alwayes) they may quench their poeticall thirst with small beere.

However – admittedly I’m not great on my Elizabethan English – it appears the aim of his ire are plagiarists and derivative poets, rather than people reproducing his works word-for-word; nevertheless the word gradually came to mean the latter; the OED’s first use of the word in this sense is Daniel Defoe in 1703, discussing in the introduction to an edition of The True-Born Englishman :

Had I wrote it for the Gain of the Press, I should have been concern’d at its being Printed again and again, by Pyrates, as they call them, and Paragraph-Men:

Interestingly, Defoe wasn’t that displeased; he goes on to say:

But would they but do it Justice, and print it True, according to the Copy, they are welcome to sell it for a Penny, if they please.

Ironically, use of the word ‘piracy’ to denote what we would call copyright infringement predates the first copyright law, the Statute of Anne 1709, to which we turn to now. That’s not to say, however, there were measures before that, and sometimes the context of how copyright came about gets forgotten; so it’s worth taking a look.

The practice of copying others’ works was rare – although not non-existent – before the invention of the printing press; the natural constraints of writing and scribing out whole texts made it impossible to mass-produce copies; a rare and incredibly early example of accused copying comes from the 560s, with King Dermot of Ireland mediating a dispute between Fennian of Moville and St. Columba – the former accusing the latter of copying out one of his Psalters (the king ruled in favour of Fennian). But then this was not just historical accident – by making reading & writing the preserve of the clerical class, and making it a deliberately laborious process (think of all that gorgeous blackletter), the Church could control production and distribution of knowledge much more strictly. With no mass readership and no profit motive, unauthorised copying was not a concern; preventing ‘piracy’ wasn’t even a side-benefit, as it did not figure on their radar.

The advent of the printing press certainly meant there were more cases of infringement (an early case cited is that of Wynken de Worde, whose work was copied without authorisation in 1533). Printing patents were an early attempt to regulate the industry, allowing an individual a right to publish works – either a specific work, or more importantly, all of those within a certain subject, often in perpetuity. This was the first attempt to regulate copying – as much out of rewarding favourites and acolytes as to protect markets. But patents had their flaws – by creating a monopoly on subjects they priced many works out of the market, encouraging unauthorised books. And they were only additive – the right had to be granted, so new patents had to be issued for new fields of study; and they did nothing on preventing seditious or undesirable material.

The Stationers’ Company, the guild of printers, opposed the patent system, with its restrictions on general publishing being an extreme barrier to trade. Additionally, with the country increasingly in religious turmoil, clamping down on rebellion and sedition was essntial. With this in mind, in 1557 Queen Mary I granted the Stationers Company an exclusive licence to print and publish, with a register of all published books. Rather than grant additional rights to individuals on an ad hoc basis, this formalised a system covering all publication; monopolies on particular subjects were eschewed in favour of rights linked to individual works, and the rights were entirely the publisher’s – it did not matter if the author was living, or long dead (so it covered ancient works as well as contemporary). You could not publish without being a member of the Company, and members were restricted on what could be published enforced by the notorious Star Chamber. As William Patry details:

After the chartering of the Stationers Company, Star Chamber decrees regulating printing were issued in 1566, 1586 (a particularly important one, drafted by Archbishop of Canterbury John Whitgift), 1623, and 1637. This final decree represented an impressive codification of all the Star Chamber’s printing ordinances. Consisting of 33 clauses, the topics covered in the 1637 decree included prohibitions on the printing of books and pamphlets not licensed by or entered upon the register books of the Stationers Company, and a requirement that licensees ensure that the books they printed did not contain material contrary to the Christian faith and doctrine, or to the discipline of the Church or State. Perhaps this last requirement explains the expansion of the Star Chamber’s authority to include ballads, charts, and portraiture, in addition to books.

Regulations and censorship by Church and State continued up until the turn of the 18th century, although clandestine and illegal publishing still flourished underground. Gradually, the hold of the Stationers Company ebbed away; the Star Chamber was abolished in 1640. The rise of the Enlightenment in the late 17th century brought with it the concepts of enduring literature, personal liberty and individual genius, as did the influence of philosophers such as Locke and authors such as Milton, and growing resentment about the monopoly held by the Stationers. Censorship and control of every book published in England was no longer Parliament’s priority, and in 1694 the Stationers’ monopoly was not renewed.

The Stationers were not, as you can imagine, very happy. For over 100 years they had enjoyed a collective monopoly, which itself had been a way for them to break individual’s monopolies, with the support of an oppressive government anxious to maintain order. With the old political conflicts crumbling away, the main reason for their continued monopoly was economic; however they failed to convince Parliament of the need to secure perpetual publishers’ rights, with a series of proposed bills in the early 1700s that never made it. As a dissenting notes from eleven members of the House of Lords put it, they opposed such bills:

…because it subjects all learning and true information to the arbitrary will and pleasure of a mercenary, and perhaps ignorant, licenser; destroys the property of authors in their copies; and sets up many monopolies.

Facing losing everything, the publishers changed tack; previously having emphasised the hurt to their own industry (and those that depended on it), they started to side with the author and the damage to their livelihood, as well as the negative impact on learning and education in the country. The focus shifted from protecting a valuable industry to safeguarding the nation’s intellect. When, finally, the Statute of Anne was passed in 1710, giving a limited, not perpetual, copyright term to authors, not publishers, it was tellingly entitled: “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned” [emphasis mine].

The first fully-fledged modern copyright law in the world, it was the result not just of its time but the culmination of a series of legal measures that had their roots in another era entirely; in that time the economics, politics and philosophy of English society had shifted enormously; the bill both reflected that change but had its roots in a tradition of monopoly and entitlement stretching back centuries.

Postscript: Comparisons of the Stationers’ attempts to reframe the debate from their economic position to the wellbeing of the national culture, to those of the record companies using the state of music as a rhetorical position to defend their economic interests, are left as an exercise for the reader.

Sources William Patry’s Copyright Law and Practice was excellent stuff, as is An Historical Sketch of the Law of Copyright by John James Lowndes, as well as Monopoly Defeating Mechanisms: Will they Function in The Digital World? by Hasina Haque, all proved invaluable.


Information Insecurity: how the web is fighting itself to death

1 December 2009

Shhh, no-one mention this is the first post here in six months…

The proposed Digital Economy Bill has, perhaps unsurprisingly, garnered a lot of attention in the blogosphere and occasionally beyond.

It had all started so differently; Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report was by no means perfect, but the discussion was broad – on universal broadband provision, opening up the wireless spectrum and looking at reforming traditional media, as well as the inevitable protections against copyright infringement.

Digital Britain’s proposals were criticised at the time, but nevertheless there were careful safeguards – the burden of proof was on rights holders, repeated infringers’ identities could only be disclosed by court order, and the final resort – after all other avenues had been explored – would be capping of bandwidth. Disliked as this aspect of Digital Britain was, it was at least balanced within a wider context: just thirty-one pages (pp 105-135) of the two hundred or so of the report were devoted to ‘Protecting and Rewarding Creativity’, as the euphemism went, and even then, some of that was on reforming fair use and reviving orphan works, rather than punishing infringers.

And there were concessions to hear the public’s point of view, with the public consultations; the Digital Britain Unconferences even got a fuller mention in the final report, with praise for “what is possible for Digital Britain when these tools are combined with channelling existing loosely connected networks and motivations.” Digital Britain at least appreciated the potential of the digital economy, rather than treating it as a threat.

And then… Lord Carter quit on the eve of the report, Lord Mandelson swooped in and all that hard work was for naught. A quick chat with David Geffen and Lucien Grainge, and the Digital Economy Bill put before the houses of Parliament is distinctly heavy on suspected infringement and light on all the other bits in the report. It is not so much one to boost the digital economy, but to protect what is left of the analogue one.

Measures include the threat of cutting off a user’s connection without due process, just on the copyright holders’ say-so, with secondary legislation allowing for “pirate finders” and forcing ISPs to snoop on traffic. This may breach European law, as Glyn Moody notes, and given the government is also committed to providing more public services online, this contradictory policy only works to effectively deprive people of access to public services without a fair hearing.

There is plenty of very good writing on the matter – two pieces by Charlie Stross, as well as Cory Doctorow and Don Tapscott, coiner of the phrase “digital economy”. And it is not just the usual suspects – this Guardian leader captures the point succinctly.

You can sign the petition, join the Open Rights Group and lobby your MP. All of these I urge you to do.

But that is not the sole point of this blog post. The fight over the Digital Economy Bill and “digital Britain” is part of a much, much, larger battle over the control of information, one that goes far beyond copyright infringement. The demands of the bill – registering copyright holders, forcing ISPs to log traffic, registering people blocked from online access – will all require enormous infrastructures and data gathering capability. Just like ID cards, or the proposed communications register, or the national DNA database.

All of these vast, vast systems are backed a political system utterly infatuated with acquiring and controlling information, in the confused and vain hope that merely by collecting it, it becomes knowledge or wisdom. So much information is gathered that the authorities have become notoriously irresponsible with it – remember, even two years on, those lost child benefit discs still haven’t turned up.

This is not to say that the governments is an evil Big Brother (never confuse bumbling desparation with malice), and it is definitely not the sole player in this game. Just look at how Google and Facebook both strive to control as much data as possible to further their business ends, while in other corner, crumbling news media empires are resorting to proposing redefining copyright in an attempt to maintain control over the information so valuable to their business and venal law firms fail in their attempts to superinjunct just about everyone.

And caught between all of them is the ordinary user – often the kind of person who’ll freely download music and movies yet complain simultaneously about the greed of the record companies; moan about our privacy being taken away from us while we Tweet every last moment of our existence; form online mobs proclaiming hate against a hatemonger; rally blog campaigns but then don’t do very much ourselves about it. We’re a funny lot, when it comes down to it.

And connecting us and them all is this big thing called the Internet. All technologies have their politics but the Internet’s are curiously contradictory; open standards and licences with their roots in counterculture, libertarianism and communitarianism abound, yet if it weren’t for the governmental, academic and corporate worlds backing and building the infrastructure, it would never have taken root in the first place.

Perhaps then it is not surprising that as the digital age has entered its adolescence, we ourselves find ourselves in conflicting times. The traditional information economy has been pulled down yet we haven’t yet worked out what to replace it with. The libertarian view is that information would set us all free; the authoritarian view is that perfect information would lead to perfect governance, but instead we have neither – we’re mired in confusion, ignorance and conflict. We’re only just realising the power in the tools we possess, but everywhere we look we see people, governments and corporations become increasingly insecure. We’re losing sense of what the web should be for, and are taking it out on each other instead.

I hope I’m not taking too much of a bellicose line here; I don’t like using conflict as a metaphor and I’m not a bloodthirsty cheerleader for all this. But there is something dark about the state of cyberspace which the rosier pictures painted in the likes of Here Comes Everybody or Groundswell (fine books they may be) do not convey. If Mandelson’s bill goes through, or if all our emails are snooped on, or if net neutrality is abolished, then it will not just be another step to destroying the open, collaborative nature of the net that has created so much already, but will only deepen the divisions and destroy all hope for a peaceful, mature and secure adulthood for the digital era.

Postscript: As far as I know yet, no-one has written that lengthily on this – the best I’ve seen being Tim O’Reilly’s “The War for the Web“. But that is just a here and now, when what is as interesting is the why; what were the social and political forces that not just shaped the net but modern politics and business, that explains why netheads tend to be libertarian (in some respects), or why governments think they need all this information. Which is a shame – there are a wealth of interesting stories on the forces that shaped these technologies and systems, some of which I used in my Master’s dissertation on the sociology of open source communities, long ago. I have no idea if there is enough for a book, or at least coherent long narrative, but I will start cobbling some blog posts together to see where it takes me.


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