So earlier tonight I turned up at the monthly ‘surgery’ of my MP, Frank Dobson (Labour), to present my objections to the Digital Economy Bill.

For the benefit of others also going to tackle Mr Dobson on this issue, (and anyone going to see some other MP) here’s a quick write up of my experiences:

I arrived up half an hour before it started, and there were about eight parties ahead of me in line. My turn came half an hour after they kicked off. I had hoped to present my argument pretty much as I laid it out in my previous blog post. However, sadly I pretty much comprehensively failed to get my point across.

The ‘I am not a spittle-flecked loon’ introduction

As planned, I started out by saying that I fully support copyright law, and of the importance of finding ways to ensure that artists get renumerated for their work. The portions of the bill which describe the pursuit of illegal downloaders therefore have laudable and important goals, however I think that the costs and problems associated with preventing illegal downloads like this are substantial, and actually make this section of the bill counter-productive. Mr Dobson was an affable gent, and listened attentively to what I had to say.

Disconnection needlessly punishes more innocent people than guilty ones

The first objection I wanted to raise, because it seems to me to be the most clear-cut, is that the bill suggests disconnection from the internet for persistent downloaders. I pointed out that since most internet connections are shared between several people (families and housemates) disconnecting a single illegal downloader would also unfairly affect all the people who share their connection. Mr Dobson’s opinion was that it would rarely come to actual disconnection - the intention of the Bill is very much that disconnection would be a rarely-used last resort. The earlier provisions in the bill (warning offenders for their first ‘two strikes’) are intended to stop almost everyone from illegally downloading, without any need for actual disconnections to take place.

Obviously I regard that as a grave misjudgement. But I had a lot of ground to cover, so I left this issue at that. I still feel that even if disconnection were only applied to a small number of people (which seems unlikely, from my perspective), it is still true that this would affect more innocents than guilty parties. There is no reason not to prefer more conventional punitive measures over disconnection.

Impossibility of distinguishing guilt from innocence

I moved onto my second point: When monitoring downloads, it is impossible to distinguish between guilt and innocence. If I download a song I own, from my home to my office, this behaviour may currently be legally murky, but it is clearly morally justifiable. To any external observer, this looks indistinguishable from illegal download. An observer cannot tell whether a particular download is illegal or not just by looking at the bits going down the wire - it requires more context than that. It requires the observer to know which CDs I have bought, and to what use I intend to put the proceeds (is it subject to fair use exemptions, etc?) Therefore, along with many illegal downloaders, the system proposed in the bill will also catch many innocent people in its net.

These innocents can appeal - there is a procedure in the bill for this - however they will find it impossible to demonstrate their innocence. If I have bought a CD and ripped it to my computer (which I have done with all my CDs, many years ago) then when I am accused of illegally downloading it, how am I supposed to demonstrate that I once bought that CD?

Mr Dobson listened with patience and good humour to this. However, it was clear from his responses that while he is a capable man who is working hard and with the best of intentions, the scenario I outlined was fairly foreign to his experience. He suggested that the bill is not aimed at catching people like me who are doing nothing wrong. It is aimed at people who are making a dishonest living by massive downloads which they are somehow making money from. I don’t believe that any such people actually exist, never mind that the bill is aimed at them: The wording of the bill clearly encompasses individuals downloading music for their own listening pleasure, and deliberately so, but I did not go into this.

Mr Dobson felt that the appeals process would be sufficient for anyone such as my self to protest their innocence. I totally failed to communicate that demonstrating my innocence during such an appeals process would be very difficult. When I reiterated that I could not, for example, produce the receipts to all the music and movies I have ever bought in my entire lifetime, Mr Dobson reiterated that the bill was not aimed at innocent people like me, it would only be applied to illegal downloaders. I again said I don’t see how the ISPs can distinguish between the two - for example I cannot produce the receipts nor the CDs that my music came from - I ripped them in 1998, and have since discarded them all. Mr Dobson said that perhaps when the bill become law (my emphasis), people will be obliged to keep their CDs “in a plastic bag in the garage”, in preparation for just such a scenario. I pointed out that all of my music for the last few years has been purchased online - so never came on any CDs to begin with.

Mr Dobson didn’t seem receptive to this argument. He was still in good spirits at this point, however, I totally failed to persuade him that difficulty in distinguishing between guilty and innocent downloaders was even a realistic possibility, never mind that it would actually be a serious problem.

I had hoped to move on from this point to demonstrate that this presumption of guilt that the bill contains will have a severe chilling effect on people’s legitimate and morally justifiable uses of the internet, and this will hamper the development of business models, which will be presumptively quashed before ever getting a chance.

However, Mr Dobson suggested that I should send him the remainder of my points to him in a letter. I asked him if I could just spend 30 seconds skipping through the executive summary of the remainder of my argument, since I felt there was a logical chain of inferences to follow, which demonstrated some real problems with the bill. He suggested that I write it to him in a letter instead.

Probable ten or fifteen minutes had elapsed. We exchanged cordial pleasantries and headed out for a lovely curry down the street with my awesome wife.