Consumer or citizen?

Becky Hogge
9 October 2006

My column a fortnight ago ("Claiming our digital rights", 26 September 2006) sparked a train of thought that hasn't stopped chugging through my brain since. The piece was a celebration of the imminent victory over that most unsuitable of technologies, digital rights management, but sounded a note of caution: that the victory appeared to have been won on consumer-interest grounds rather than those of democratic principle. Two cheers, said the column, but let's save the third for when rights in the networked age are won for citizens, not shoppers.

Colin Crouch, Klaus Eder, and Damian Tambini have a phrase for what I've been fretting about these last two weeks: the "marketisation of citizenship". It is a neat phrase for a bundle of restrictions that increasingly impact on my everyday life in the public arena.

As a citizen of an established democracy, I get to exercise my democratic rights once or twice every four years. If I want to protest outside parliament, I now have to apply to the police for a license. If I write to my MP about an issue I am passionate about, such as the introduction of compulsory biometric identity (ID) cards in Britain, I'll get an earnest letter back saying he knows they're a silly idea too but the cabinet just won't listen these days. I can request documents under the Freedom of Information Act, but I am not allowed to distribute them, or I'll get a cease-and-desist letter from the happy bunnies in Whitehall who enforce Crown copyright.

As a consumer, on the other hand, I can make political decisions every day. Should I buy apples that are locally grown but use pesticides, ones that have been flown from New Zealand but are organic, or ones whose origins are unknown to me, but are sold by the intimidating local fruit-and-veg man who still uses imperial measures, and not Tescos?

Should I boycott Maxwell House because they fund the Republican Party in the United States, or Nestlè Gold Blend because its aggressive marketing practices undermine breastfeeding in poor communities? Should I continue to boycott Gap even though the latest studies show it has reformed its labour practices in the developing world? Should I start boycotting American Apparel because of its advertising campaigns' sexualisation of underage girls? Climate change, economic injustice, famine - each can be eased by a wave of my credit card. The decisions are so dizzying, I can hardly wait for 25 November, Buy Nothing Day.

Becky Hogge is openDemocracy's technology commissioning editor

Also by Becky Hogge in openDemocracy, a selection from her "Virtual reality" column and other articles:

"The Great Firewall of China" (May 2005)

"Why the WSIS? Democracy and cyberspace"
(November 2005)

"Global voices: blogging the world"
(December 2005)

"Some grown-up questions for Google" (February 2006)

"Internet freedom comes of age" (February 2006)

"Payday for the free internet" (March 2006)

"Internet Hoaxes hit politics" (April 2006)

"Microsoft: closed windows and hidden vistas" (April 2006)

"The battle for net neutrality" (May 2006)

"Open source ubuntu" (May 2006)

"The Crown's copyright con" (July 2006)

"Amnesty's China hit-list" (July 2006)

"Whose space? Abuse and control in social networks"
(August 2006)

"Anonymity on the net" (August 2006)

"Revolution at our fingertips"
(September 2006)

"Claiming our digital rights"
(October 2006)

Private gain, public loss

The digital age has come upon us smack bang in the middle of this participatory shift. Moreover, networked communications have arrived cloaked in the mantles of sectors we believed had little to do with free speech - computer hardware, mathematical algorithms (otherwise known as code), telephone wires - until we linked them all together and made the internet. No wonder the discourse is more about consumers than citizens. But what are we losing out on?

In an article for the latest issue of SCRIPT-ed, the online journal of the AHRC Research Centre for Studies in Intellectual Property and Technology Law at Edinburgh, Eliza Varney of Keele University's law school goes some way to answering this question. Using examples drawn from the European Union's regulation of digital television infrastructure, Varney illustrates how, whereas economic concerns were at the forefront of regulators' minds, the concerns of the citizen were often left unheard.

Competition rubrics were employed to tackle concentrated ownership of "bottleneck" devices (such as set-top boxes), compensating market failure and ensuring value for money. But rubrics more often associated with ensuring citizens' access to independent information, such as ownership laws and obligations to carry public service broadcasting, were not employed by regulators.

Varney places part of the blame on "minority capture" by incumbent operators, a story not unknown either to digital rights campaigners or (thanks to World Intellectual Property Organisation [Wipo] delegate Cory Doctorow, in an April 2005 interview) openDemocracy readers. But a more damaging long-term trend is in operation. "In addressing the bottlenecks challenge," surmises Varney, "social regulation must be applied alongside economic concerns in order to protect the public not only as consumers but also as citizens."

What consumers lose to citizens bears examining in the context of copyright reform, too. UK digital rights campaigners are eagerly awaiting the submission of Andrew Gowers' review of intellectual property law, due before the end of 2006.

(The review will make good a manifesto pledge - which Tony Blair vigorously denies was suggested to him at Cliff Richard's holiday pad in Barbados - to examine whether copyright terms need extending. The performance rights of early Elvis, Beatles, and, you guessed it, Cliff Richard tracks are set to fall into the public domain rather soon here in Britain, and the industry is worried that without continuing revenue from the sale of these classics, it won't be able to invest in new talent. Consumers will be left high and dry - no Sandi Thom, no Venga Boys or S Club Juniors to bop to, shopping-malls fallen silent, mobile phones no longer ringing...but I digress).

What this febrile dystopia fails to capture is the reason copyright terms are finite in the first place. For every Buddy Holly, Paul McCartney or even Cliff Richard, there are hundreds of thousands of obscure performers and artists who didn't make hits that carry on making their record companies rich long after they themselves have drowned in their swimming pool or died in a car crash and been replaced by a look-alike called Billy. Although these less successful recordings no longer have any commercial value to their rightsholders, they are of tremendous value in terms of our cultural heritage.

If Gowers decides to follow the American trend, and support the extension of copyright law to "one day short of eternity", consumers may not lose out, but citizens will. Works of no commercial value will be orphaned. They will languish in forgotten store cupboards at record company headquarters when they could be enjoying a digital rebirth in the public domain, lovingly catalogued by next-generation digital libraries like the Internet Archive, and exposed to successive new waves of fans.

Much of the best digital rights campaigning work is done by consumer-interest groups; just look, for example, at the Consumer Union's fantastic digital rights portal, HearUsNow. In Britain at least, the welfare state - the national health service, unemployment and housing benefits - is now almost universally characterised as a "service", and its beneficiaries are "customers" or "clients". According to one political insider, public servants shy away from the term "citizen" altogether in this context because many of those accessing welfare provisions are not (yet) British citizens.

But we are all citizens of the globe, and if we are engaged global citizens, then we must not lose sight of our rights as such. The term may need redefining, a wash and brush-up for the globalised world. But it should not be surrendered. We may feel more powerful as consumers, but we are more free as citizens.

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