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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with his announcement this morning that the public will be able to nominate "unnecessary laws" that they want to see repealed.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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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.