Thursday, 6 September 2012

A Requested Red Flag For The Internet

A Requested Red Flag For The Internet
By Rick Falkvinge. Founder of the first Pirate Party.
(posted here with permission)
If I had a penny for every time the entertainment distribution industries went to politicians and asked them to regulate the internet in order to "save jobs", I would already have a lifetime of activism paid for. Yet, this is one of the most stupid and counterproductive policy any government could follow.

I like to look at historic patterns. We can observe that all of this has happened before - and all of this will most likely happen again. Every time, it feels just as unique as last time. When incumbent industries are threatened by a new and disruptive technology, they will use any justification imaginable to kill it in its infancy, trying to convince legislators that their particular special interest is a public interest. It always ends badly.

You have all heard the cries of the entertainment distribution industries (which are not "creative industries" in any sense of the word, with the notable exception of accounting practices) about how vital they are to the entire economy, and how it would be reasonable that they be compensated with an amount of money exceeding the world's entire GDP for the mere existence of LimeWire, to mention but one example.

Looking at history, as industries become threatened by new technology, they typically embrace it in public and talk passionately about its potential, but only in terms of how the new technology can support the existing and incumbent industries. Under absolutely no circumstances must the new technology be allowed to come into a position to replace the currently dominant industries.

A famous example of this is the Locomotives Act of 1865 in the United Kingdom, better known as the Red Flag Act. It was a law that limited the speed of the new so-called automobile to 2 miles per hour in urban areas, and required them to always have a crew of three: a driver, a stoker (engine operator), and a man who would walk before the automobile waving a red flag. This effectively limited the speed of the automobile to walking speed, negating any possible inherent speed advantage of the new mode of transportation.

The car was fantastic, people would say in public, but only as long as it didn't threaten the railroad or stagecoach industries. These very industries, it turned out much later, were behind the lobbying that led to the Red Flag Act. The fledgling automobile industry stood to make the older industries obsolete, or at least significantly smaller, which could not be permitted. Therefore, they went to Parliament and argued how tremendously important their industries were to the public good and the economy as a whole, and claimed that their special interest was a public interest. Just like the entertainment distribution industry lobby does today.

Essentially, the stagecoach and railroad industries tried to limit the permissible use of the automobile to carry people and goods the last mile to and from the stagecoach and railroad stations, and only at walking speed. That wouldn't threaten the existing dominant industries, and they could pretend in public to embrace its usefulness.

Today, the entertainment distribution industries - perhaps more accurately described as the copyright industry - pretends to embrace the Internet, but only inasmuch as they can keep operating as they always have. Any other use needs to be outlawed and criminalized, and such laws harshly enforced.

And sure enough, British Parliament agreed in its time that the stagecoach and railroad industries were important. But the Parliament made the mistake of seeing yesterday as the present time and eternal: those industries were only important before the technology shift that the car brought, a shift which was already underway. The special laws that these industries pushed through - with emphasis on the Red Flag Act - caused the inevitable technology shift to delay in United Kingdom, and therefore, the car industry of the United Kingdom lost considerable competitive edge against its foreign competition, being ten to fifteen years late into the game.

The moral of the story that keeps repeating itself is that an industry troubled by technological advances should neither be allowed special laws nor be confused with the public interest, but instead be permitted to die as swiftly as possible, so that new industries and new jobs can take its place. If you do the opposite and keep that industry alive with artificial respiration and repressive legislation, you not only hurt respect for the law, but also the future economy and competitive

"Saving jobs" means that politicians take resources by force from vital, innovative, and competitive industries, and give those resources to ailing, failing, and obsolete industries. It's not very good policy. We shouldn't have to fight to keep the red flag mentality off the internet, but we do.

Rick Falkvinge                                                   @Falkvinge

Version first seen in GoTo Magazine: