So, what many suspected has come to pass, our deepest fears confirmed and one of the worst possible texts adopted. The Digital Economy Bill has gone through the wash-up process in the very last day of this Parliament. I am expecting others to go into the detail of what is actually in the Bill soon enough, this morning I feel neither the inclination nor the will to go through the document. However, just browsing through the online version of the Bill, it seems like the final text is not up yet, as it still contains clause 43 on orphan works, which I believe was dropped last night.
What I want to comment on is something deeper, and perhaps more important in the long run than that arising from the letter of the law. The UK Parliament has been suffering since the expenses scandal broke last year. Public perception of politicians is at the lowest point in this country, just at the same time as they call a general election. So what do they do to regain the trust of the people? Pass a controversial piece of legislation with the most undemocratic process possible, with minimal discussion, while being witnessed by thousands of constituents who have no other recourse than being thoroughly disgusted and disillusioned by the entire process.
One of the things that has struck me the most about the debate is the amount of public sentiment that it has generated. It has been discussed in Radio 4′s Now Show (relevant clip here), it has been the subject of a Panorama investigation, and a very critical clip from the Culture Show. A call to tell MPs to give the Bill proper oversight prompted a staggering letter-writing campaign of 20,000 people. During the debates, thousands tuned in to the BBC’s website to watch the proceedings live, and the Twitter stream #debill describing the third debate accumulated thousands of tweets, and became the second trending topic worldwide, as people in other countries became interested as well and retweeted what was happening in the UK. My own tweets about the Digital Economy Bill got retweeted from people in Colombia, India, Australia, Mexico and the United States, just to name a few. The public outcry on Twitter was such that the #debill hashtag beat Manchester United and Justin Bieber as trending topics.
Something important and wonderful was happening online. This is the type of democratic engagement that politicians supposedly dream of. They want our votes, they want us to care, they want us to be involved. Unless it is about something that has already been decided and negotiated by the powers-that-be, in that case we just become a nuisance, part of an annoying self-referential minority that can be easily ignored. It’s back to business as usual. It is precisely this disconnect between genuine public interest and the vested interest of powerful lobbyists what is destroying democracy. When people tuned in to watch the debate online, they could witness with their own eyes just how undemocratic the entire system is. Letters do not matter, what matters is the sickening toadying MP making reference to Feargal Sharkey’s Undertones, while sycophantily winking at him in the stands.
However, politicians anger geeks at their own peril. We are packing code, and we ain’t afraid to use it. Already there has been a beautiful mash-up (or whash-up, geddit?) singing that Creativity is the Enemy. Thousands of Twitter users have signed up to oppose the Bill. There is already a list of who voted No, and a staggering website with an indication of who was present during the second reading of the Bill. I do not expect the geeks to take this one lying down.