Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Defeat for the digital army?

Hope springs eternal in the breasts of the digerati. The online army which raged against the Digital Economy Bill as it was rushed through at the end of the last Parliament - it seems like another political era now - is hopeful that the hated law will be repealed by the new government.

Houses of ParliamentAfter all, the one party which opposed the bill, the Liberal Democrats, is now in government. "Surely this will be a priority," campaigners have argued on Twitter and elsewhere. "We voted for them on this issue - now they've got to act to undo this disastrous law."

I fear they are likely to be disappointed. A quick inspection of the coalition agreement published yesterday does indeed show that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats plan a great repeal bill. But there is no mention of the Digital Economy Act in that plan to dismantle some of Labour's laws.

Given all the other big and scary tasks facing the new government, I just can't imagine that repealing a law which could see suspected illegal file-sharers temporarily suspended from the internet will be a priority.

And did the issue really play a significant part in the election?

Remember, the Liberal Democrats actually came out of the election campaign with fewer MPs. As for Stephen Timms, the Labour minister who steered the legislation through the Commons: he was severely punished at the ballot box - with a thumping majority, one of the few members of his party to see their position strengthened.

It's worth too asking a few questions about the tactics of the online activist. Much was made back in March and April of the tidal wave of e-mails directed at MPs by opponents of the bill.

A community organisation called 38 Degrees provided a helpful link on its website encouraging people to e-mail their MPs about the bill and the way it was rushed through the Commons - and claimed that more than 20,000 people had done so.

But soon afterwards it was pointed out by the online news site The Register that anyone could just click and e-mail, so some of the correspondents could be overseas or just multiple clickers.

In a somewhat surprising reply to an inquiry about this loophole, a spokeswoman for 38 Degrees told The Register: "The culpability lies with the MPs to check the veracity of contact letters."

The trouble is that MPs who do engage with the public via social networks are now receiving huge amounts of unsolicited e-mail.

A friend who helps out a Liberal Democrat MP - and advised him to use the likes of Twitter and Facebook - told me he had received over 4,000 messages in recent days offering various bits of advice on how the Lib Dems should enter a coalition.

"What are we supposed to do with this stuff?" he asked, with some frustration.

Some of those messages will have arrived via 38 Degrees, which mounted the Fair Votes campaign for proportional representation over the weekend, winning plenty of publicity and piling pressure on the Liberal Democrats and Labour to stand up for PR.

Here's a line from the 38 Degrees blog: "When the Lib Dems looked wobbly over the weekend, we sent them over 150,000 emails urging them to hold firm."

The e-mails were also directed at Labour MPs, including one Tom Watson, who was the most vigorous opponent of the Digital Economy Bill but is not apparently a supporter of PR. Here's how he reacted on Twitter to the deluge:

"Thks @38_degrees. Inbox now full. Why didn't you check to find out the MPs that supported your proposition before spamming us all?"

If even the most digital MPs are treating mass e-mail campaigns as spam, it looks to me as though this particular weapon of political protest is now virtually worthless.

On the other hand, the opponents of the Digital Economy Act should not, perhaps, be too gloomy. Just as the new government is unlikely to find time to repeal the law in a hurry, it may well be even less keen to see families cut off from the internet or websites blocked.

The new law was painted by its opponents as a great slavering beast which would eat the internet and millions of innocent surfers - perhaps it will turn out to be a toothless old mutt asleep in the corner.


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