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with his announcement this morning that the public will be able to nominate "unnecessary laws" that they want to see repealed.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

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.