I write with a somewhat heavy heart this morning, having watched over the last 48 hours the Parliamentary #debacle that was the #debill. (Please forgive the twitter speak. I’ve been using hashtags for a couple of days now, and it’s proving hard to stop.) In the ten years I’ve lived in Britain, aside from the debate in the House of Commons prior to the invasion of Iraq, I’ve mostly managed to ignore Parliament. There hasn’t been a bill I’ve paid attention to, or cared about, as much as I have the Digital Economy Bill, debated this week.
I won’t spend a great deal of time discussing the minutia of this complicated bill; there are others who understand parts of the bill, and the process, better than I do, and have written with great alacrity on the subject. In a nutshell, it’s a bill that grants government the power to regulate what content shall be available via the internet to the people of this country. The content of the internet is soon to become government’s gift to us, to take away and bestow as they see fit.
Suffice to say the DEB was a bad bill and it’s been fast-tracked to become a bad law through something called the “wash up” process. It’s been passed quickly, with severely limited debate, bypassing committee stages and the usual scrutiny under which a bill becomes law. I don’t know how this abbreviated process can possibly be called fair or right. It’s a mystery.
As we move into election season in the UK, this bill is the gift of a lame duck Parliament, given almost at the very moment the general election was being announced. The election has been quite a good distraction, and media focus since Tuesday has been firmly upon party politics and what the various factions say they’ll do about crime and schools and the NHS. The DEB has been largely ignored, which is more than a little vexing as it’s one that affects me personally. If you live in Britain it affects you, too, although you may not even be aware of it. If you live in the US, you’ve your own bill to worry about, which is currently being written, in secret, by many of the same people whose wise council and deep pockets Britain’s Parliament has relied upon for the drafting of the DEB.
Personally speaking, several of the clauses in the bill will affect the way I use the internet to produce the podcasts that you all like so much. Internet “lockers” like yousendit.com, and Google docs, have made it possible for ordinary knitters who write, and writers who knit, to participate with me in the co-creation of Cast On. They share their content with me, and I in turn can share with you. The lockers are private, and require a password, which also makes it possible, I suppose, to share illegally downloaded files, in addition to stories about knitting. Of course the “creative industries”, record companies and the like, are not happy about that and want things to change, so that they can more easily find and prosecute internet pirates. It’s just a pity that in order for them to do that, some of the the tools I use to make podcasts may soon no longer be available to me.
Most alarmingly, there’s a clause in this bill requiring ISPs to cooperate in the identification of copyright infringers, and illegal file sharers. If accused of these practices, you’ll soon get a letter from your ISP warning you to stop. A series of letters of increasing strength will follow, and if the behavior continues for a year, you’ll face termination of your account. The cost of any appeal of this action shall borne by the accused. In other words, the onus is on you to prove that you’re innocent of file sharing. Given the size and number of the files I routinely shift up and down the internet, I wonder how long it’ll be before the letter from my ISP arrives.
Those are just two of my many objections to this large and complicated bill, and I won’t bore you with the rest as the DEB is… well, large and complicated. What I want really to share is the experience of watching the Digital Economy Bill make it’s inexorable way through Parliament this week. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s been a bit like watching a car crash in slow motion. First there’s the horrible sound of crunching metal, and you think, “It could still come out all right. They could walk away from this one.” And then the “Boom!” of the explosion sends pieces of twisted metal flying, and you think, “Well. Okay. Probably not now.” That, in a nutshell, is what it’s like to hear MPs suggest amendments to a bill that will make it better, only to hear them withdraw those amendments after a few more minutes of debate.
As I mentioned, aside from the debate during the run up to Iraq in 2003, I’ve managed to ignore the doings of Parliament, for the most part, for a nearly decade. Politics as a philosophical exercise interests me. The day to day sturm and drang of political procedure does not. Sometimes, every once in a great while, I’ll have Prime Minister’s Questions going in the background, on a Wednesday afternoon, if I’m cleaning house, and there’s nothing good on Radio 4. The cut and thrust of PMQs in the House of Commons are amusing to watch and listen to; it’s so much more lively than what happens in the US Congress. It’s bit like a community theatre panto, with good guys and bad guys, and a lot of harumphing and hear-hears. But I have never, until two nights ago, followed a full debate on a specific bill.
The second reading of the DEB began around eight o’clock on Tuesday evening. That was the first surprise; that political process routinely happens in Westminster after what most of us consider the close of a business day. I didn’t suppose that a factory whistle released streams of MP’s from the building at 5pm, but it was a surprise that debates on important topics routinely happen late on a weekday evening. Why do they work so late? I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
Surprise number two was that the debate began in a largely empty House. Near the beginning I counted no more than a dozen or so MPs, which I found shocking. Truly. There’s no other word for it. I was shocked. “How will MPs know how to vote if they don’t hear the debate?” I wondered.
Apparently knowing how to vote is not a problem, as the party leaders have already decided how everyone is going to vote. Apparently this is normal, and MPs don’t really need to hear the debate. Unless scheduled to speak on a bill, MPs remain in their offices (or the canteen, or the pub) and, if they’re curious, one supposes they watch the debate on TV. Of course we don’t really know that they’re watching the debate on TV, but that’s what many of them say they do, entering the chamber only if they’re needed for a vote. So why debate at all? I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
Surprise number three was the utter cluelessness on the part of most of the scant handful of MPs debating the bill. One or two MPs distinguished themselves by appearing to have read the thing; the rest, if they had read it, did not appear to understand its implications. Watching the twitter stream for the hashtag #debill was more informative than most of what I heard on the floor of the Commons that night. Did you get that? Twitterers managed a more informed debate, within the hundred and forty twitter-imposed character limit, than most of the MPs in the house. Sadly, laws are not made by the 5000 or so internet geeks who were watching on Tuesday, of which Tonia and I proudly number ourselves two. They are made by MPs who have more important things to do than read a bill for comprehension. Things like run for re-election.
The biggest and most unpleasant surprise of the first evening was the vote to allow the bill to continue through the process, to the third reading. This was agreed by less than 5% of the MPs who are responsible for creating fair laws in this country, without so much as a single nay.
The third reading of the bill on Tuesday night was closely followed by many thousands of twittering geeks and, once again, was ill-attended by the very people whose job it is to show up, stand up on behalf of their constituents, and be counted. Until, that is, the time came for a vote. When the ayes and nays are evenly matched, the Speaker calls Division, and all the MPs troupe for the door, where they are joined by the MPs who’ve been watching from their offices, the canteen or the bar, for just such an occasion. The ranks swell with new MP’s; those who’ve watched or participated in the debate are joined by many who have not. They all file through the lobbies, and are counted as they pass. (Yes, there are two actual lobbies, one for the ayes, and one for the nays. Ever wonder where the term “lobbyist” comes from? Those are people representing private interests who seek to influence which lobby you walk through in order to vote. Now you know.) The count is tallied and read by the Speaker, who announces the result. On Wednesday night the ayes had it, and the bill was passed.
I take some comfort, albeit small, in the fact that Tonia and I did nearly everything we could to let our MP know of our deep concerns, not just with the content of the bill, but of the way in which it was passed. We wrote, we called. Several times. Our MP knew how we felt. The only thing we didn’t do was write our local newspapers, to raise awareness of the issue amongst our fellow constituents. A couple of letters to editors would not likely have changed the outcome of the vote, no matter how compelling or strongly worded. Still, I regret that I didn’t try. If there is another bill that I feel as strongly about as I do the DEB, I’ll write those letters next time.
Nick Ainger (Labour, Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire) was absent from Westminster during the vote, due to illness, but his presence in the Commons this week would not have changed the outcome of the final vote. He has voted along party lines 82% of the time, which is above the general average. We’ve found him responsive as an MP, but only up to a point. He replies with form letters, which may save him time, but makes it seem as though he’s not really listening.
I’ve come away from watching a little Parliamentary process this week somewhat chastened, as I realize that there is much about the process that I simply don’t understand. I’ve also realized that a working knowledge of how government works in the US isn’t enough. I must expand that knowledge to better understand the system under which I live here in the UK. It’s taken a decade, but I realized this week that I live here now, and the country of my birth is no longer really home. I need to be a citizen of the UK, so that I can participate fully in the process, instead of riding on Tonia’s shirt tails. Though written jointly, all the letters to Nick Ainger over the past few weeks have been in Tonia’s name.
As for how our disappointment with the way the current government rushed the passage of this bill will translate at the ballot box next month, when Tonia casts her vote, there’s no telling. It’s a mystery.