The dragon's toes

Milena Popova analyses the messages behind the keynote speeches at this year's ORGCon

Image: fire dragon woosh! by glenneroo: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The overwhelming feeling I left this year's ORGCon with was that digital rights in the UK had grown up. The depth and complexity of debate has come a long way since the last conference in 2010. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the two keynotes: Cory Doctorow's "The coming war on general-purpose computing" and Larry Lessig's "Recognising the fight we're in". Both painted, in broad brush strokes, a picture much bigger than the current digital rights space.

The copyright wars, Cory said, were just the opening battle in what will soon be a war on computing as we know it. As general-purpose computers continue to tread on the toes of various vested interests (like they did with the entertainment industry), we will see more and more demands for devices which can do all the great things that computers do, except this one thing which really annoys someone. We have seen how badly this has gone, technologically with DRM and legally with the likes of SOPA, PIPA and ACTA. The problem here, Cory argues, is that due to the nature of the technology any attempts to prevent people from sharing digital content converge on surveillance and censorship. The technology that the content industry proposes to use to enforce copyright is the same technology that states like Syria and China use to censor free speech and keep tabs on dissidents. We are likely to see more such attempts in future, from stakeholders other than the content industry, not fewer. The copyright wars, so Cory, have taught us valuable lessons about what works and doesn't work in fighting for our digital rights.

Larry Lessig, too, painted a big picture of digital rights. He started with three case studies of policy areas gone horribly wrong: allocating access to spectrum, the abysmal quality of broadband in the United States, and of course copyright law and enforcement. Here, both he and Cory made a similar point - that lawmakers shouldn't have to be specialists in a field in order to be able to make good laws. To an extent, this goes against some of the digital rights community's received wisdom - including mine. Many of us have often argued that we simply need to educate politicians better on the issues and the technology aspects of such laws. And yet, we don't expect our MPs to be GPs in order to legislate on health issues, or environmental scientists in order to legislate on climate change, or engineers in order to legislate on car safety. Why should we expect them to be technologists to be able to make good laws on technology?

The root cause of the problem, Lessig argues, is not a lack of expertise - it is the pervasive corruption of our democracy. More Americans were in favour of British rule before the American Revolution than Americans today who do not believe that money buys results in Congress. 0.0000063% of Americans - less than 200 individuals - have contributed 80% of the money spent so far in this year's presidential election campaign. We, the rest of us, are not so much the "99 per cent" - we are the 99.9999937%. While these are US numbers, there was some poetic justice in the Cash for Cameron scandal breaking the very day after ORGCon. It is not so much that our politicians don't have the knowledge to make good laws on digital rights, it's that those laws are bought by vested interests with the money to back them.

We are now seeing, Lessig concluded, the beginnings of a global movement to take back our democracies. From the steps of St. Paul's to Zuccotti Park, from the Arab Spring to Indian anti-corruption demonstrations, we the people are waking up and demanding back our governments. He ended his talk with a please to digital rights activists: not to abandon digital rights, our first love, but to add a second cause to our campaigns - the cause of taking back our democracies.

To say all this is daunting is a bit of an understatement. To go to a conference on the complex but fairly compact subject of digital rights and to have the curtain lifted to reveal that what we're actually fighting for is regaining control of our governments, and that the copyright wars weren't so much the big boss fight as the bit at the start of the game that's meant to teach you how to use the controls (Cory's analogy, not mine), can be rather overwhelming. Yet there is hope. Knowing what we're fighting is half the battle. It enables us to regroup, look around, stop hacking at the dragon's toes and start going for its eyes instead.

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By Milena Popova on Apr 18, 2012

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