Burnham on Basic Principles

10:49 am - July 25th 2008

by Robert Sharp    

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Culture Secretary Andy Burnham calls for regulation of the Internet to protect the “vulnerable, the poor, and the weak.” From the title of the article, “In a Lawless zone, we must protect the vulnerable” one would think he is talking about paedophiles in chat-rooms, or the 180% rise in phishing, but in fact he is talking about copyright theft.

It is also contentious that the poor are being disadvantaged by the ‘lawless’ internet – One great advantage of the medium is that it reduces the financial barriers of entry into any given business. Putting online regulation in place will surely restore those barriers. Indeed, the proposals to introduce some kind of licence fee to download music looks like a revenue generator for record companies, rather than a measure to help young and creative people who are just starting out, and giving away their music free on MySpace.

But for entirely different reasons, it was the following quote hat caught my eye:

Nothing can be accepted as inevitable. Though technology moves quickly, we can’t abandon basic principles that have stood society in good stead for centuries.

Wasn’t this the precise argument against 42 days detention!?

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About the author
Robert Sharp designed the Liberal Conspiracy site. He is Head of Campaigns at English PEN, a blogger, and a founder of digital design company Fifty Nine Productions. For more of this sort of thing, visit Rob's eponymous blog or follow him on Twitter @robertsharp59. All posts here are written in a personal capacity, obviously.
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Story Filed Under: Arts ,Blog ,Detention (28 days) ,Labour party ,Media ,Technology

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Reader comments

The idea of a levy will no doubt utterly horrify libertarians, but I actually support it. Certainly more than I support ISPs beig forced more and more to actively monitor our traffic.

I just think it is a little funny that Labour consider “intellectual” property to be so sacrosanct when it has been a method of middle-class expropriation for years.

The levy would take the form of a subsidy in favour of the current music industry rather than whatever future music industry might otherwise develop.

Well yes, if the terms were that it was simply split proportionately between the big music makers it would. It would need to be managed a little more cleverly if it was to be of any use.

Yes, which governments are famous for. The question is why? The internet is doing absolutely fine, being as close to pure anarchy in action as people have ever seen (some genuine criminal activity but that is tiny compared to the benefits everyone experiences of near total information freedom). There isn’t a dearth of musicians or even to musical development. There are live concerts galore and people have more access to music than they ever have before. The means of music (and other media) production and reproduction has been given to everyone who can afford some computer hardware. This is exactly what liberty and greater equality is all about. We should leave it to develop as it is, as it is only just getting started.

The trouble is that like it or lump it, despite music seemingly growing and growing in the face (and arguably because) of piracy these big companies are being heard more and more by governments around the world. Now do pirates want to keep being called criminals? Do people that want to just download some music they like wish to be labelled as thieves because they don’t pay despite any indirect benefit that action gives to the band in question?

In a perfect world everyone would realise the current system works and works well, but that assumes that the same proportion of music piracy always happens, and we can’t be that naive. A levy type system would mean that everyone using the net has the opportunity to listen to whatever they like and as much as they like. In fact if it was extended to be a wider ranging tax you could do away with restrictive music licensing laws.

It’s complicated, but if some of the experts and big-wigs got together and really thought about how they could do that and make it work you would have a continued growth of the industry and we would all be able to benefit from music without the bureaucracy, faster, and much much cheaper than we currently do. Of course, like the license fee there is the potential there for some to see less value, but I think there’s an intelligent case to be made for no-one being able to say that £10 or £20 a year is poor value or something they “won’t benefit from”

the line you use ‘leave it to develop as it is’ is bad in many ways, because although I agree that central intervention is generally unhelpful the state has always had a contribution to make, and has always made it: would we be without it completely? Anyway technological developments are spurred or chanelled by communication with the state at various levels relating to everything from infrastructural demands to intenational compatibility and connectivity to the acceptable parameters of content.

One thing government could do is to use the current round of trade talks to end the ability to distort market conditions by hardware producers (particularly chip companies). But, no, while governments have a vested interest in keeping corporations happy they will always the easy targets which individuals represent.

It’s a shame government doesn’t see how we all as individuals are exploited by corporations because of our relative vulnerability, poverty and weakness, but then government exploits us too in the same manner.

Not least because the individuals in charge of government and those running the corporations are so frequently the same people or closely related. Because of what you say is wrong with government intervention, I think we would be better off with less of it. Infrastructure demands are problematic, I acknowledge, because of the problem of national and private monopolies, but there are ways to alleviate many of those problems by getting government disengaged from areas where it is not required and presently entrenched. The licensing of the majority of the radio spectrum, for example.

“A levy type system would mean that everyone using the net has the opportunity to listen to whatever they like and as much as they like.”

The problem is, this wouldn’t actually happen. The big music labels would lap up the levy, and sit quietly for 6 months. Then, they’d simply restart their obnoxious lawsuits, for people “breaking the terms of the levy” or whatever arbitrary new limits they created.

Mr. Burnham’s problem is that he can’t quite decide what his topic is. Stopping music piracy (which no-one cares about) or stopping child abuse online (which is laudable but irrelevant to music).

but in fact he is talking about copyright theft.

Has anyone read The Pirate’s Dilemma? It actually argues that in many ways this piracy is quite a good development.

“Then, they’d simply restart their obnoxious lawsuits, for people “breaking the terms of the levy” or whatever arbitrary new limits they created.”

Why are you getting in to such irrelevant arguments against the levy like this? When talking about a levy that we would support, why would we be arguing for one that can have public trust broken so easily? Lets assume, given how simple it is to do so, that such a levy would be a reasoned and strategic agreement between the state (on behalf of the public) and the music industry, and therefore that from that point on the corporations have to deal with government and not individuals when it comes to disagreements over exactly how much profit they’re making. Essentially the levy should, in its only really acceptable form, recognise the benefits of a free reign on sharing and distributing music and thus take the individual out of the equation.

Mr Burnham has never been very good, so I am taking everything he says with a pinch of salt, but given that this solution of a levy was floated by a load of music insiders and “experts” a year or two ago it’s already been too long for the idea to be brought to the table.

Sunny: No, but thanks for the heads up. I’ve always personally been unconvinced by this idea of online sharing killing the industry. The american industry took record profits, and took a steep increase in profit margins, when Napster was at it’s height. When napster got shut down its profit trends slowed phenomenally. Anecdotal perhaps, circumstantial almost certainly, but there’s something there worth discussing. How we can still equate IP theft with physical theft is absolutely moronic, and I’ll be writing about it next week myself.

“a reasoned and strategic agreement ”

In the same post, you admit that Mr.Burnham is, at best, a rather lacklustre Secretary. The major labels and their representative bodies, both here and abroad, have a history of corrupting “fair-use” agreements and lobbying governments for ever more restrictive legal controls.

Now, considering those two points, why on *earth* should we assume that the agreement you speak of would be anything remotely resembling “reasoned and strategic”? You have to, unfortunately, step into a parallel universe to find the right conditions for a “reasonable” levy, but I’m pretty much stuck on this planet.

Great attitude. Meanwhile I’ll be stuck on a planet where I’m going to at least be doing everything in my personal power to make the case for that reasoned agreement, rather than admitting defeat before the race has even begun.

Jesus, there’s such a trend in this place of people just absolutely cynically unable to even think about positive steps isn’t there?

14. douglas clark

What I think Robert is alluding to is the glorious fact that the internet is, largely, lawyer free. And when these parasites attempt to impose their standards, the Internet, largely speaking, gives them a good kicking. I happen to think that the ‘anarchy’ of the internet might be a good model for society generally.

So, does no-one think that the quote about” basic principles that have stood society in good stead for centuries” is at all noteworthy? I think it would make a good quote to headline any anti-42 days campaign. Or is it a case of coming too late?

16. douglas clark


No, it is noteworthy. And we should keep it in reserve for the coming battle. We have not won the 42 days debate. Hopefully, what with the Glasgow East by election result, the margin in favour falls a bit more.

@1 Lee Griffin: Certainly more than I support ISPs beig forced more and more to actively monitor our traffic.

This is probably unworkable because people would just encrypt their communications. Already, many BitTorrent clients come with encryption.

“vulnerable, the poor, and the weak.”

Ha ha fucking ha. Andy Burnham thinks the multi-billion pound content instries, the RIAA and the MPAA asre the poor, does he?

At a quid a track it costs about £20,000 to fill an iPod up with legal music. How many teenagers does Burnham think are going to do that. And it gets worse: within 5-10 years the average hard disk will have the capacity to store every piece of music that’s ever been recorded. When this happens, even if the government does succeed in stopping P2P (which they won’t), then people will strill be able to grab all the music they want off their friends’ collections.

Nothing can be accepted as inevitable. Though technology moves quickly, we can’t abandon basic principles that have stood society in good stead for centuries.

When Burnham says “nothing” he’s clearly referring to the possibility of death of copyright as the main business model by which content creators monetize their creations. So he’s aware of the possibility of it happening, but in denial that it is happening — he still believes he can stop it.

This is, I suppose, progress. The next steop will probably be acceptance of the inevitable changes that are taking place.

Cabalamat – my fear is that they will indeed discover a way of stopping it if they are determined enough.

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