Mandelsongrad - can it be stopped or will it come out of the wash?

With little public attention the UK state has claimed quite extraordinary powers over internet connectivity. A hilarious journey to Banana Ice Cream Republic illuminates what Britain may become.
JP Rangaswami
3 April 2010

The Digital Economy Bill is due to receive its Second Reading in Parliament on 6th April 2010. The Government has indicated that it will not be debated in the House of Commons; instead, it will be dealt with as part of the "wash-up" processes that relate to the dissolution of Parliament. The Bill covers a lot of ground: amongst other things, it affects the role of Ofcom, the role of Channel 4, regulation of TV and radio, spectrum issues, video recording issues, content regulation, the "broadband tax", copyright infringement, the role of ISPs in copyright issues.

There are many things that could be claimed as less-than-perfect with the Bill as it stands:

  • it is conceived on the wrong premises (in terms of fatuous statistics about the value and effect of downloading)
  • It is driven by the wrong people (in terms of unelected officials, their participation, relationships and biases)
  • It follows the wrong process (in terms of the avoidance of any sensible debate in parliament)
  • It seeks to mete out the wrong punishment (in terms of prejudging guilt and forcing disconnection rather than fines)
  • It establishes improper power (in terms of the arrogantly "presidential" nature of the power it bestows on ministers)

But these are just arguments and politics is all about argument and debate. What really matters is how you, the citizen, get affected. And boy are you affected! This is serious stuff.  I've tried to explain that by allegory in the post below. Please try and spend the time to read it.

Once you have read it, there are a number of things you can do. The most important thing is to contact your local MP so that he or she is in no doubt about where you stand on this. The next most important thing is to tell others so that they do the same: they contact their MP and they tell their friends.

Incidentally, if you want to understand more about the Bill, there are many good resources especially at the Open Rights Group and Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing, or join the facebook group. I've also written a few more posts over at confused of calcutta, here are five: one, two, three, four and five [Especially five, ed].

The Digital Economy Bill: Thinking about Banana Ice Cream

Imagine there was a little tinpot dictatorship somewhere. Let’s call it a Banana Ice-Cream Republic. You know the kind I mean. Colourful stamps, country and capital going through ritual name-change on a regular basis, no rule of law, no civil liberties, a bunch of officials wandering around with grand titles and grander uniforms, with “President-For-Life” just the table stakes, and Grand Panjandrums 2-a-penny (not to mention Chief Scientists!).

Imagine you lived there.

Imagine you lived in a town where a lot of people ate banana ice-cream. Imagine that this ice-cream was available a number of ways: you could go to the shop and buy the ice-cream; you could go to a restaurant and order some; you could send off for ice-cream via phone or mail or suchlike; you could even make some yourself, or, if you’re very lucky, have others make the ice cream for you.

Imagine some people stood in front of the shops and restaurants asking you to try their wares, and they gave the ice cream away for free. So that you would be tempted to come in and spend a lot more money on a lot more things.

Imagine you could also buy ice cream from vans that passed by your house. [Have you ever bought ice cream from a passing van? I have. Many times. And I hope to do so again, many times.]

Now imagine that some people held up the vans and stole the ice cream and gave it away for free to everyone. This would be wrong, wouldn’t it? Of course. No one would argue that stealing is right. Even in a country without rule of law, this is usually understood.

So let’s imagine a little more. Imagine that some of the ice cream distributors got upset about all this stealing, and started trying to convince the local council that Something Has to Be Done About It. [An important point to remember; the distributors were the ones getting upset, because they were the ones making the money, not the guys who created the delicacies]. Imagine that some of the ice cream distributor big cheeses got together with some of the local council big cheeses, and they went for a boat ride on the town lake. And imagine that when they all came back, the councillor announced, completely coincidentally, that he was going to introduce a law to Stop This Stealing.

Imagine he came up with such a law. Imagine a law that went like this:

1. All people living in houses in any area where ice cream stealing was even suspected would be banned from using the roads. Any roads. No proof was needed.

2. All people living in houses in any area capable of storing stolen ice cream would also be banned from using the roads. Any roads. No proof needed. The house itself would be cordoned off.

3. If people were suspected of having bought the ice cream and then having used it to make an ice cream based dessert, this would also qualify for a ban on road use. No proof needed.

4. The people looking after the roads had to make sure that anyone in any house suspected of stealing ice cream, or harbouring stolen ice cream, were prevented from using the roads. Again, no proof needed. Failure to do this would mean the road-looker-afterers would also be fined.

5. If asked, the people looking after the roads would also have to report on the movements of the people who lived in the houses. Which roads they used. When. To do what.

6. Anyone providing maps or similar tools that could be used to find houses that may be suspected of harbouring people who steal ice cream, or of storing stolen ice cream,  would also be prevented from making those maps available to anyone. Again without proof.

7. Axe murderers were to be allowed to use the roads. Child molesters were also to be allowed to use the roads. The only people banned were those suspected of stealing ice cream or handling stolen ice cream.

8. The councillors had the president-for-life power to amend and extend this Ice Cream Law at will.

If it happened where you live, that would be horrible, wouldn’t it? People use roads for so much more than banana ice cream. There are so many ways to get banana ice cream. Some people even give it away for free, they make their money selling the spoons and cups and napkins. Some banana ice cream makers have lost faith with the distributors; so they now make and sell the ice cream themselves, telling passers-by to pay whatever they like, only if they like it. And people pay.

People use the roads to learn and to teach. People use the roads to take children to school. People use the roads to take the elderly to hospital. People use the roads to go shopping. The town is an open town, many people use the roads just to get from A to B. People use the roads to keep the town clean, to make sure that everyone gets what they need. Some people even use the roads to walk to council meetings.

In fact people use the roads for many many things besides banana ice cream.

Which is why the change in the law made so many of the townspeople very angry. They didn’t believe that banana ice cream stealing was going on at the levels that are claimed. They didn’t believe that the banana ice cream industry was losing as much revenue to stealing as the industry claimed. They didn’t believe that ice cream vans had much of a future, they thought that there are better ways to make and deliver ice cream. Some of them didn’t think that ice cream distribution was all that important anyway.

Aren’t you glad you don’t live in a Banana Ice Cream Republic?

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