Digital Economy Bill [ Lords]
Business of the House
7:24 pm

Photo of Tom Watson

Tom Watson (West Bromwich East, Labour)

It is of great personal amusement to me that I happen to be following the previous two speakers. My very good friend Pete Wishart made an impassioned plea for his trade, and I understand his arguments even though they were slightly angry and vexatious at times. You might not know this Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am something of a rock hero myself, having been a guest lead singer with the hon. Gentleman's band. I sang "Teenage Kicks" at another Member's 50th birthday, and I know that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire would have cleared the copyright and intellectual property licence and all that, because he would not have let me perform live unless he had.

May I also spend some time thanking my very good friend, my hon. Friend Mr. Simon, for his contribution and for his friendship over the years that he has been in this House? He has made a huge difference and has cheered us all up. I have had a few drinks with him in bars similar to those in "Star Wars", and I forgive him, because I think he has just referred to me as the estranged child of Peter Mandelson. If that is the case, he has used his uncanny political antennae to be, once again, ahead of the game. We shall miss you, Siôn.

This week marks the tercentenary of the Statute of Anne, 1710, which was the world's first copyright law. It opens with the words:

"Whereas Printers, Booksellers, and other Persons have of late frequently taken the Liberty of Printing, Reprinting, and Publishing...without the Consent of the Authors or Proprietors of such Books and Writings, to their very great Detriment, and too often to the Ruin of them and their families: for Preventing therefore such Practices for the future, and for the Encouragement of Learned Men to Compose and Write useful Books".

So the whole copyright settlement-I cannot be the only one to see the irony of this-came about because the British publishing industry was exploiting our creators and not giving them adequate remuneration for their work. Some 300 years on, a central question for any Government to ask themselves is how they can encourage more people to express themselves by using their creative talents to strengthen our society. Another central question for modern Governments to ask is how they will contend with the disruptive force of the internet. That is a question that we should be answering when we are framing legislation in this House.

I do not believe that this discussion will end today. It will dominate debates in this House for years to come. The next generation of MPs will have to contend with the direct implications that our regulatory moves in the internet sphere will have for the kind of society that we want to live in, and how they will impact on the rights that we all expect to have. How do we promote freedom of speech and balance it against rights to privacy? How do we contend with issues of centralised data gathering and storage by Governments versus rights of control over our own personal information? How do we balance the right to protect intellectual property that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire has talked about against rights of fair use? How do we balance people's right to express their views freely against the need to protect individuals from obscene forms of cyberbullying, for example?

There is an emerging recognition that we need to break down the digital divide in this country, so that there is a right to access the world wide web through universal broadband access. Politicians on both sides of the House have talked about access to the internet as an emerging right. That is why, at the higher end of the debate, people are extremely concerned that on one level we are talking about access to the internet being a right and that, on another, we are talking about practical measures such as removing people's access to knowledge-albeit after sending a letter-and removing the ability to share knowledge using the internet.

It is a very great pity that the Bill cannot be tested in Committee in the light of some of those questions. As a twice ex-Whip, I am rather embarrassed by the fact that the Bill is being railroaded through in the wash-up. Frankly, there has been a squalid deal between the three Front Benches, and they should be ashamed of themselves. The people who care about this Bill-and there are many out there-will see that for what it is.

Before I concentrate on the parts of the Bill that particularly concern me, I want to list the commendable elements that deserve very great praise. First, the proposal on video games classification is long overdue and will give clarity to many families around the country about what content of video games is appropriate for their children to consume. The video games industry in this country has a very big future. It currently employs something like 28,000 people, but with the right Government intervention, there is no reason why we could not have quadruple or quintuple that number of people working in the industry in years to come.

Britain dominates the world when it comes to creativity, and any measure that will help consumers to accept that is to be welcomed. If the PEGI-pan-European game information-classification system is adopted, I know that the industry will engage in a public education campaign, and we should commend it for that.

The proposed new remit for Channel 4 to produce high-quality digital content is also a good idea, although, like my hon. Friend Derek Wyatt, I would have liked it to go further. Channel 4 is this country's digital pioneer: it does amazing things on very small budgets, and I had hoped that the regulatory regime offered in the Bill could have harnessed its creative endeavours a little more. We have talked already about the new powers for Ofcom to regulate the electromagnetic spectrum, and I am especially pleased that the Bill will extend public lending right to e-books and spoken-word books.

There are some very good measures in the Bill and, unlike some other contributors, I believe that the Government have much to be proud of in the digital space. Just last week, in an inspired move, we made 1:10,000 geo-spatial mapping date free for reuse through the Ordnance Survey. Ordnance Survey geo-spatial data is the jewel in the crown for data mashers up and down the country, and the move will foster a great sense of innovation and an explosion of creativity in the digital space. Freeing up data, liberating talent and catalysing creativity: these are the elements that we should be exploring in the Bill.

Earlier, I said that this debate was not new. We have been contending with ways to manage our collective intellectual capital since the Sumerian merchants of 5,000 BC made small marks on clay tablets to show their daily trades. The difference today, of course, is the sheer scale of the task.

How do we contend with what Richard Saul Wurman describes as a "tsunami" of data? Human beings produce five exabytes of recorded information in a year; that is 40,000 times the number of words stored in the British Library.

Kryder's law is the almost mystical formula that says that digital capacity will double every 13 months. It means that we can now super-process acres of data that could not be digested even 10 years ago. If the law remains accurate, we will be able to store all the content ever created in history on a single iPod by 2025. Given the level of technological advance and the pace of change, is it any wonder that many people believe that the current measures for policing file sharing are simply pointless?

Cheaper computing has created an industry and new thinking on information technology. In his book "We-think", Charles Leadbeater makes the point that

"thanks to rising educational attainment, spreading communications and cheaper technology, innovation and creativity are becoming increasingly distributed".

I think that the measures in this Bill will make it harder, not easier, for people to share knowledge and ideas through the internet and I am, frankly, baffled as to why any political party, on left or right, would want to go down that route.

I know that the worthy intention of those on all three Front Benches is to defend our creative industries. Everyone in this Chamber wants to do that, even though my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington has comically parodied my position, to the amusement of all. However, more enlightened members of both main parties privately tell me that they know that the copyright measures in this Bill are nonsensical. They say that they will give the big publishing interests that dominate the debate in this country a period of respite, during which they can compose themselves while they consider their next moves in the internet age.

I admire the Bill's motives in respect of copyright, but there is an opportunity cost associated with defending old publishing interests. Innovations will not stop in our competitor countries while we give the UK record industry time to think.

There is a less charitable, more sinister view of this Bill. I readily admit that it might play into the conspiracy theories so ably portrayed by the previous two speakers, but the attempts to create artificial scarcity with information goods represent a second enclosure movement in this country. The intangible assets of our society are being packaged up in a contemporary expansion of intellectual property.

As the Bill's supporters and critics make claim and counterclaim about the economic benefits of the measures contained in it, one thing has been abundantly clear to me throughout the debate. It is that there has been a huge and unprecedented lobbying operation by the old publishing interests. They are the beneficiaries of enclosure, and they have dominated the argument for months.

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