Digital Policy


Transparency DCMS style

It’s rather like transparency, with curtains

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The Open Rights Group managed to claw another bunch of meeting minutes and attendee’s lists from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS); shedding a bit more light on the options being discussed for the next batch of copyright protection measures, along with some pointers as to who’s pushing them.

As a quick recap, contacts tell me DCMS Minister for the Internets Ed Vaizey has been chairing closed-door industry meetings for over a year, trying to broker a set of voluntary measures to regulate the net. 

It’s not just copyright - a contact close to the Department for Education tells me Vaizey has also been involved in meetings set up to broker voluntary deals on filtering internet connections for pornography.  

Plus a whisper in Whitehall that echoes of Jacqui Smith’s 2008 tub thumping on blocking of “terrorism websites” still reverberates around 2 Marsham Street.

How voluntary is voluntary when government ministers are involved is yet to be seen.  Especially when multiple first hand witnesses tell me Ed Vaizey has used the threat “do something or we’ll legislate” on more than one occasion.

Which reminds me, we're still waiting on the Comms Bill green paper, which should outline any legislation in this area; before or after the Olympics, Ed?

To read more about what’s being discussed, head over to the Open Rights Group Blog or read earlier details leaked to my blog SRoC back in March.

What I’m still very worried about...

... is the way these plans are being formulated - in secret, amongst a select group of “industry” representatives.  No small business representatives, no consumer voices, no civil society involvement.

I’ve said it many times before.  The internet is more than a handful of global tech giants, internet advertisers and ISPs.  Legislation drafted this way will inevitably end up favouring today’s incumbents at the expense of innovation and fair market competition tomorrow. 

Or end up an unworkable mess.

As far as transparency goes, DCMS has crafted a franky unacceptable fudge.

In order to claim secret meetings of a select few are transparent and include a wide group of stakeholders there will be an infrequent sideshow to give other voices a chance to bemoan what continues to be agreed behind closed doors.

It sounds very much like transparency... with curtains! (ht @JimHacker for coining that) 

Personally I think in this case nothing would be better than something;

Nothing would deny the Minister an opportunity to make a far-flung claim that this process is transparent; a claim I'd lay money on him making.  

For this reason I hope civil society and consumer groups consider a boycott of the sideshow, unless concessions are made towards full transparency of the process and a meaningful dialogue with all stakeholders.

Ed Vaziey’s transparency credentials took a further knock with the Open Rights Group’s Peter Bradwell writing about the struggle to prise this batch of papers from DCMS, despite a note in the minutes themselves agreeing the minutes should be published:

Everyone around the table agreed that the meeting note should be published along with a mission statement of what the roundtable was out to achieve.

I broke the story of these secret round tables back in June with the leaking of a confidential proposal supported by the Premier League which would have forced ISPs to block infringing live streams of football matches “within hours”, with only cursory judicial oversight.

Thorough judicial oversight is important, not least because distinguishing between infringing and non-infringing content isn’t always as easy as it looks; especially when dealing with older works and culture off the mainstream.  To highlight some of the problems in a global domain when copyright rules are inherently territorial, I previously examined the consequences as the works of 3 great British authors enter the public domain.

Since exposing these secret meetings I’ve been campaigning for transparency on the way public policy affecting the internet is formulated.  I don’t want to see another horrendous and costly bodge like the Digital Economy Act (DEA). 

The DEA was rammed through parliament, with MPs being told measures were “urgently needed” and little if any public debate on the contentious sections - disconnection, and in particular the chilling effect this may have on universities, libraries, hotels and cafes and others offering open WiFi access.

In fact there was only very limited debate of the disconnection provisions in the House of Commons itself, due to the insane timetabling arrangements for the bill.

But now the “urgently needed” warning letters won’t hit doormats until 2014, four years after the bill was enacted in spring 2010 - and this could slip further.

Had a bit more time been spent thrashing out a deal with all stakeholders - citizens, consumers, industry representatives (large and small) - there may indeed have been some additional pain crafting the primary legislation, but whatever measures were agreed (e.g. warning letters, without disconnection?) might just have been in place by now; plus the government may have avoided a costly judicial challenge.

@JamesFirth

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