Digital tyranny in the U.K. -- is the U.S. next?

If the United Kingdom's Digital Economy Bill is enacted, the government will have unfettered power to monitor and punish almost any user activity that copyright holders don't like

It was with shock and awe that I read Cory Doctorow's piece on proposed legislation introduced in the United Kingdom last week. This particular set of amendments, wrapped in the so-called Digital Economy Bill, proves without a doubt that truth is stranger than fiction. I urge you to read Cory's take on this, but I'll summarize some of the more troubling aspects:

  1. If illegal file sharing is suspected (not necessarily proven) within a home, all Internet access to that residence could be terminated and fines of up to £50,000 could be imposed on the household.
  2. ISPs could be compelled to spy on their own users or face stiff fines and other penalties.
  3. The UK Business Secretary would be granted the power to modify any aspect of the law without debate, including the definition of new violations and penalties at a whim, essentially turning his position into that of a dictator for all digital communications within the United Kingdom.

[ Think it can't happen here? The you haven't been following the ridiculous debate in Congress over Net neutrality. ]

Needless to say, these are incredibly bad ideas, even coming from a country with an Official Secrets Act. The language in this bill would place corporations in complete control over the Internet in the United Kingdom, answering to nobody but themselves. It's practically a step-by-step guide on how to force your best and brightest to move to another country. The only way this legislation could be worse for U.K. citizens would be if it mandated random hourly beheadings at major shopping areas as a warning to copyright violators.

Why is it that instead of trying to spread availability of high-speed Internet access, significant segments of first-world governments seem bent on doing the opposite? On the other side of the pond, we now have either a primer on how to descend into wanton corporate rule or a stiff warning.

I find it tough to find a middle ground when discussing this with others, especially nontechnical people who don't understand either the ramifications or the technology. On one side is the tinfoil hat, and on the other is a shrug and a "Well, what can you do?" Neither are useful for communicating the need for an open Internet to anyone.

This "war" isn't really about the Internet, though. It's about content. It's about the established corporate entities that own the rights to everything we read, hear, and watch. They are very much entitled to protect those assets and certainly welcome to adapt to the times and deliver that content for a price suitable for the consumer and their bottom line.

However, under no circumstances should they be allowed to function as a pseudo-government agency, arbitrarily invading our privacy and serving as judge, jury, and executioner whenever and wherever they like. As disturbing as legislation like this might be, it's far more troubling to understand that very many people in positions of power within these companies believe fervently that this is not only a good idea, but the only idea.

The psychopathic nature of the recording and music industry has been carefully nurtured over many decades, requiring it to be at once fresh, edgy, and hip, while simultaneously treating every new content-playback technology as if it was Satan himself. Take the case of DVD CCA v. Kalidescape.

Kalidescape makes centralized content management products for the home. Basically, if you buy one of their central units and one or more playback units, you can rip DVDs and CDs straight to disk and play them back on your TV or stereo. Using this method to play music and video is fantastically easier than any other method currently available, leaving no DVDs or CDs to scratch or lose, and you can watch whatever you like wherever you are.

Naturally, the DVD CCA (Copy Control Association) has a rather different perspective and sued Kalidescape in 2007. Somewhat shockingly, Kalidescape won -- for two years. A few months ago, the California Court of Appeals for the Sixth Appellate District overturned the ruling and the future of Kalidescape is uncertain.

You can never win by threatening and punishing your customers. As these industries continue to push their heads into the sand and flail about trying to control exactly when, where, and how people consume their products, more and more people will simply head the other way. The United Kingdom can twist itself into a pretzel fining people for downloading season one of "The Vicar of Dibley," and the MPAA can continue to sue the planet in an effort to revert movies to the silent era, but it won't change the fact that people have seen the alternatives, and they're far better than anything these industries want to push on us. The only question is how badly they'll destroy themselves figuring that out.

This story, "Digital tyranny in the U.K. -- is the U.S. next?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com.

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