Time to Re-Boot British Politics


So, the forces of stupidity, arrogance, greed, laziness and downright bloody-mindedness prevailed, and the Digital Economy Bill has turned from an ugly, misbegotten chrysalis into a ragged, leaden-winged butterfly, the Digital Economy Act. But along the way, a real, terrible beauty was born.

For perhaps the first time, the geek constituency was not only widely interested in what was going on in politics – that's happened before – but actually deeply *engaged* in the process at many levels.

Despite the defeat, I feel strangely elated by what I have been privileged to witness over the past few weeks. I have seen tens of thousands of people contacting their MPs, to the point that one of them mentioned in Parliament that he had never received so many emails on a single issue.

I have seen people create wonderful mashups of information overnight to provide amazing weapons of knowledge (only to see those weapons bounce off the carapace-like ignorance of most of our elected representatives).

And I have watched, entranced, as vast tweet storms have raged across the Net, conveying second-by-second information about latest developments, accompanied by insightful, moving and often laugh-out-loud funny comments.

But we still lost, you may say. That's true, we have lost a battle, but won something much more important: a sense of what we are capable of. Now we need to work out how to grow and deploy this new-found power to get the Digital Economy Act repealed, at least those parts that mess with the Internet.

However, that must be just the start, not the final aim. The last few days have shown how most politicians have nothing but contempt for the democratic process, the wishes of their constituents – and the future of the UK.

For rather than passing crucial parts of the Digital Economy Bill, and leaving out the controversial ones that are likely to have a major negative effect on the British economy, the government chose to do precisely the reverse, using a three-line whip to force the worst measures through. The result was a travesty of the Parliamentary process that any tin-pot dictator in a banana republic would have been proud of.

This means that the longer-term goal has to be to reform the system itself. Fortunately, the very flaws that made the passing of the Digital Economy Act possible also map out for us what needs to be done.

For example, that fact that some clauses were pretty much drawn up by the media industries, and that much of the rest was framed purely to shore up outdated recording industry business models based on scarcity, means that we must address the issue of lobbying.

Too often we only discover what lobbying has taken place from its results. We need to ensure that all lobbying is conducted in a completely open fashion. This is a classic open government/open data problem, and the good news is that the momentum behind this movement is growing inexorably – not least because Sir Tim Berners-Lee is behind it. And the more government is opened up, and the more public data that is released, so the case for doing the same for lobbying will become stronger. This means we must push on all fronts for such transparency to help the idea take root at all levels of government and business.

Another major issue is the extraordinary lack of knowledge about technology the vast majority of our politicians possess. This fact alone ought to make them cautious about passing the current complicated and ill-drafted Internet legislation, since they've clearly no idea what it means or will do. But this ignorance is also very troubling for the future, since it means that yet more bad laws are likely to be passed when – not *if* – the current Digital Economy Act fails in its stated aims.

I think the solution to this problem is relatively straightforward: we must carry on doing what we did when fighting the Digital Economy Bill. That may have passed, but by golly the politicians knew that we were unhappy. For perhaps the first time, they realised that there were tens of thousands of people who cared about this stuff, and who were watching their every move, listening to their every word. We need to do the same for any future legislation affecting the world of digital technology.

We need to bombard MPs with polite, well-argued but passionate emails on the subject, using the indispensable WriteToThem. We need to tweet incessantly about what they are saying and doing. We need to ridicule the more egregious mistakes, until politicians come to appreciate that technology is the hot seat, only for the tech-savvy. We need to make it such that the only people who can handle that job are lone heroes like Tom Watson, who pretty much put his political career on the line in a last, desperate attempt to get his colleagues to understand – as he truly understands – the appalling implications of what they were doing.

If we can do that, then at a stroke many major problems will be avoided. It will simply not be possible to pass such stupid, ineffectual legislation as the Digital Economy Act, because the person responsible will know it's a waste of time. We can then try to educate other MPs, and raise the general level of discourse in the House of Commons.

We can maybe encourage them (and their assistants) to join microblogging services so that they can see for themselves what people are saying and feeling – and join in the conversation. That's already happening, but the fact that Harriet Harman could promise that the Bill would be debated on Twitter and then renege on that promise shows that some people think Twitter is just like any other medium where you can get away with such things.

Ultimately, though, we need to work to change the entire system of Parliamentary politics in this country to stop the Digital Economy Bill fiasco happening again. As this great site Voter Power indicates, most of us have little real power at the elections. Quite what the best solution should be is something that needs to be discussed thoroughly: what we need is for the amazing collective intelligence of the geek community to be trained not just on technological systems, but on the entire *political* system in this country, to find a way of hacking it then rebooting it. After all, we like a challenge...

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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