Netopia Speaks in House of Commons

Today, Netopia took part in a seminar on digital policy and intellectual property in the House of Commons in  London. My speech:

Members of Parliament,

Fellow Speakers,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

My name is Per Strömbäck, I am the editor of Netopia – a Brussels-based think-tank and web magazine on the digital society.

I am humbled and honoured to speak to you today at this joint meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Intellectual Property and the Digital Policy Alliance. Coming from Sweden, it is safe to say that my home country has a lot to answer for: the Pirate Party in European parliament and of course the infamous Pirate Bay. Sweden is sort of the fossil fuel of intellectual property infringement, spreading the CO2 of piracy to other countries through the atmosphere of the internet, destroying the climate for everyone. So, apologies for that, but believe me; I have worked hard against it on the home front.

For that reason, it is inspiring to be here in the United Kingdom where the intellectual level of the debate regarding the digital topics is so much higher and where policy-makers have not resigned to the myth that any attempt to influence technology or regulate the internet would be both misguided and dangerous. As our lives, businesses and societies become increasingly digital, it is clear that it is more democracy and not less that is the answer to protecting our rights and interests online. Public institutions guarantee the freedom of the individual, not threaten it. This is true of our offline lives, as well as online. In a global view, the United Kingdom is a leader in internet governance. Blocking infringing websites, ideas for new forms of licensing for online content brought forward, carriers sending notes to illegal downloaders – such concepts are anathema in many other countries. So I congratulate you, but of course there is much ground left to cover before legal certainty online is anywhere close to that of the offline markets.

I have often noticed that policy-makers find themselves behind the curve of technology and struggle to make good digital policies. Often, regulation comes after the fact, added on as an after-thought, which makes it a blunt instrument, may not achieve the intended results and may have collateral effects that can be difficult to predict. While this is true, it is also true that technology does not exist in a vacuum. Let me remind you that the internet of today is not the product of digital evolution without interference. Rather it is the result of government funding and political decisions. The internet was first developed by the US Military in the 1960’s, the so-called ARPANet. Your own Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the world-wide web at CERN, a physics laboratory which is funded by the EU and member states. Today’s clashes of content and technology can be traced to the Clinton Administration’s  Digital Millennium Copyright Act from 1998, which gave intermediaries immunity and rights-owners a way to bring legal cases against infringers. Without this so-called “safe harbour” for the telecom carriers, peer2peer file-sharing piracy could not have thrived the way it did.

The next frontier for intellectual property in the digital space may well be 3d-printing technology, which, if it follows a similar trajectory as for example photo printers, threaten to bring the challenges that the culture industries have been struggling with to physical goods manufacturers. In June last year, the UK government announced 14,7 million pounds investment for 3d-printing projects. Again, policy is ahead of the curve of technology, making it happen by putting tax money into it. Do these funds come with demands that society’s priorities like taxes, tariffs and fair competition can be included in the technology? They should.

Of course tech companies will tell you that any government intervention will “break the internet”. Everyone would prefer to be left to their own devices. But government decisions and tax money made, and continue to make the internet.

New technologies, such as big data, internet of things, artificial intelligence and fog computing follow this similar pattern: publicly funded research and development, commercial launch, impact on society. The cycle is predictable by now. In Netopia’s report Can We Make the Digital World Ethical? the authors suggest particular actions, such as a new technology body that oversees software much like the Health Department or Food and Drug Administration keeps an eye on the food industry. (Two of the authors are here today, Jane Whyatt and Peter Warren.)

This brings me to my second point. “Free” is a keyword in all topics digital, but the different meanings can be confusing. There is an old joke by Richard Stallman, one of the pioneers of Silicon Valley: “Free as in Speech or as in Beer?”. Of course, free speech is a human right, free beer not so. Freedom of speech is not the freedom to distribute somebody else’s work to a global audience without permission. Freedom of speech is not the freedom to take anything one finds online without consequence. Quite the opposite, it is an abuse of free speech. Free beer, dressed up as free speech.

Another gem from the early days of Silicon Valley, which has been misinterpreted over the years is “information wants to be free”. Stewart Brand is the man who said it, but the complete quote reads:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

This was in 1985, but it sums up today’s debates nicely. The invitation to this seminar wants to discuss the convergence of content and technology. It is fair to say that the two are mutually dependent: content needs a delivery mechanism and technology needs something to fill the pipes with, to fuel the demand of the consumers for more bandwidth and hardware. Some may argue that amateur creativity, remix culture and social media is the new black, but one look at the Pirate Bay top-charts shows the opposite: of the 100 most popular video downloads, 99 are current feature films or television series. The odd one out is a Bollywood movie. Professional quality material remains the most desired content. Consumers want it to be free. Distributors want it to be as cheap as possible. Creators and publishers want it to be expensive. It is the same drama that have always played out between distributors and creators, artists complaining about record labels, writers about publishers. Except this time the gate-keepers are not music executives, but internet platforms and telecom carriers. In this view, buzzwords like “innovation” and “market disruption” are just other ways to commercialize content without having to pay for it.

Let me finish with a quote from John Locke:

The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings capable of law, where there is no law, there is no freedom.

Freedom online requires democratic governance. The alternative is not anarchy, but regulation by technology.