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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with his announcement this morning that the public will be able to nominate "unnecessary laws" that they want to see repealed.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 .

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide