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Laurie Penny: Digital Politics - Replacing 'unnecessary laws'

It’s time to ditch the Digital Economy Act.

Nick Clegg is angling for some much-needed goodwill from the left with his announcement this morning that the public will be able to nominate "unnecessary laws" that they want to see repealed.

The Deputy Prime Minister is crowdsourcing people's ideas for the repeal or reform of legislation in three key areas:

  • Laws that have eroded civil liberties
  • Regulations that stifle the way charities and businesses work
  • Laws that are not required and which are likely to see law-abiding citizens criminalised

The Your Freedom website allows the public to suggest changes to invasive laws, and to "rate" those that they would like the government to consider for repeal or reform in the upcoming Freedom Bill, which will be unveiled in the autumn.

Depending on which suggestions make it into the bill, this may well herald a whole new way of forming policy, as well as allowing Clegg to put on a solemn voice to inform us that "Today is the launch of Your Freedom", rather like a civil servant auditioning for the role of deranged desert prophet.

The Your Freedom initiative isn't precisely direct digital democracy -- the government has no obligation to consider any of the suggestions, which, according to the Telegraph, will be "sifted" before any assessment is made -- but it's a start.

There is really only one way for civil liberties campaigners to respond to such an unprecedented display of faith in digital politics: with a lobby to reform the antediluvian Digital Economy Act, removing the sections of the bill which threaten internet users with summary disconnection for engaging in free file-sharing.

This morning, a group of Open Rights Group supporters and opponents of the Digital Economy Bill, led by Katie Sutton, convenor of the Stop Disconnection demonstration in March, put together the following statement:

The Digital Economy Act (DEA) is an insult to British citizens, and the government should consider its repeal in the upcoming Freedom Bill as a matter of urgency. The DEA was rushed through at the tail-end of the last parliament in an undemocratic manner, allowing the owners of copyrighted content such as music and film (rights holders) to demand that an internet service provider (ISP) cut someone's internet connection if they suspect that they have downloaded copyrighted content. Rights holders only need to prove that the wrongdoing occurred using the internet connection they wish to be cut, not that the persons affected are guilty.

This leaves account holders responsible for the actions of anyone using their connection, whether legitimately or by piggybacking without permission. In this digital age, an internet connection is essential for simple tasks like banking, paying bills and jobhunting, and as a result, taking away a connection used by several people as punishment for the actions of an individual who may not even be known to them is fundamentally wrong.

Simply put, the act imposes disproportionate, collective punishment, does not follow the principle of innocent until proven guilty and contravenes Magna Carta, which in 1215 stated that, as a basic human right, no person may be punished without a fair trial. The Digital Economy Act is a massive insult to our civil liberties and should be repealed in its entirety, subject to the less objectionable clauses being redrafted and discussed democratically in the Houses of Parliament to pave the way for a proper digital economy which does not punish innocent people.

If the Liberal Democrats are looking for "bad laws", they should look no further than the Digital Economy Act, which was forced through during the wash-up, despite huge opposition from a digital grass-roots movement of internet users, civil rights protesters and allies within Westminster.

The act could be construed in any of the three available categories:

  • as a threat to civil liberties (in 2009, EU Amendment 138/46 declared that access to the internet is a fundamental human right)
  • as a threat to businesses and charities (many sections of the music, film and other UK creative industries depend on file-sharing to support their business model and disseminate ideas), and
  • as an unecessary law that threatens to criminalise the seven million law-abiding British internet users who regularly share files.

It's only a pity that the Liberal Democrats, who voiced their opposition to the Digital Economy Bill in March, couldn't be bothered to turn up to vote against this regressive, draconian law in significant numbers prior to the election campaign.

Still, better late than never: for those of us who care about digital rights, the patronisingly titled Your Freedom site is a brilliant opportunity to make our voices heard.

What you can do

Comment on and rate any or all of the following suggestions, uploaded to Your Freedom by concerned citizens, to repeal aspects of the Digital Economy Act.

It is telling that, within hours of the site going live, a number of suggestions to reform the act have already been put forward, as well as some sillier ideas for what the government should throw out ("The EU in general" is my favourite so far). I've selected what seem to be the most comprehensive and well-supported proposals, referring to specific clauses of the act that need to be repealed. All of them deserve your rating and comments:

  1. An official proposal, put together by the Open Rights Group in consultation with human rights lawyers and digital freedom activists (link to come). If you vote for only one idea, make it this one.
  2. Save Britain's Digital Economy by Repealing the Digital Economy Act.
  3. Repeal the Digital Economy Act 2010. You'll need to log in or register at the Your Freedom website, but the process takes just a few seconds and does not require you to give out sensitive information.

If you believe, as I do, that access to the internet is a fundamental right, you should get behind this campaign.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.