Hang on, internet access is a Human Right?!

Such deafening silence. Not actually physical silence – as I write this I have Amon Tobin’s Isam playing in the background, and very nice it is too. No, the silence refers to the (hopefully temporary) internet death that I am currently experiencing. A number of electrical storms have passed over BlancoMusic HQ in the last few days. We were careful enough to unhook the wireless router for most of them, but the latest storm came overnight, with no-one around to disconnect. It seems that the router is fried. Or perhaps not – the guy on the helpdesk at our service provider asked lots of questions, and reckons it’s actually the telephone line that’s the problem. Who knows?
He insists that they’re working on a solution, and if they can’t get anything done from their end within six hours, they’ll send someone around.

Can we manage without internet access any more? As businesses, as people? One of the news stories in Monday’s Music Week described a United Nations ruling which declared the UK’s ‘three strikes’ rule to be in contravention of human rights. How very apt to find myself in the situation where I have the opportunity to experience what this contravention might feel like. The ‘three strikes’ rule, for those who need reminding, was the controversial law chivvied through the parliamentary lawmaking process in the final weeks of the previous administration’s tenure. It was controversial from the point of view of British internet users in that its penalties for repeated lawbreaking seemed far too draconian. It was controversial from the point of view of a great many musicians, authors, film-makers and other content creators simply because it was not draconian enough. In summary, the law set out a framework via which internet users found practicing illegal filesharing could be sent warning letters informing them that their actions had been noted. On the third occasion that this action was deemed necessary, the user’s internet service provider could be instructed to disconnect the user.

On Monday the UN deemed the law a contravention of human rights, presumably choosing to ignore the practical fact that there exist multiple internet service providers in the UK, and that a user who violated copyright law to the extent that they were subject to a three-strikes penalty need only pick up the telephone and change ISP in order to have access to the internet re-established. Most of us choose an ISP based upon convenience or pricing considerations, to be denied our first-choice of ISP due to our own repeated illegal actions is an inconvenience which affects convenience or price – which seems a somewhat minor threat to our human rights as normally defined by the UN. Let’s just cast our mind back to a different area of the news for a moment – the water-boarding of suspected terrorists at US and UK military facilities. This technique, deemed to be in accordance with Geneva Convention rules regarding the conduct of war, were not considered to be a form of torture, and were legally used by UN member states – the UK and USA. The Geneva convention refers to the conduct of war, not to human rights – the inference is my own. I am somewhat confused by a statement from the UN which deems the inconvenience caused by having to change internet service providers a contravention of human rights. UN-defined human rights, and I can’t just go and look them up on Wikipedia (I’m offline, remember) occur to me as being about a great deal more than protecting the citizens of our planet from minor inconvenience (changing ISPs can be as simple a matter as making a phone-call and relating some bank account details). Wasn’t it supposed to be about guaranteeing the right to education, sanitation, food, water, shelter, worship, reproduction, partnership, mobility etc? You can, as far as I can infer, cause a traumatic simulated-drowning via water-boarding without denying your prisoner’s human rights. You can deny civil partnerships to same-sex couples; you can administer death by lethal injection; you can withhold welfare aid from the family members of convicted felons: you can arrest and detain any group of more than three people gathered without a license; you can run an oil tanker aground and leak millions of litres of oil into the sea, killing everything it touches. All these things and more, you can do, without contravening a single human right. Or so it seems, because it all happens on a regular basis without human rights lawyers being troubled. But you can’t cut off an internet connection.

Filesharing apologists will consider this a small victory. The statement will be amplified and posted to blogs and tweetfeeds faster than I can write this. Maybe it is a victory, maybe it’s true what they argue – that zeros and ones, or soundwaves and light-patterns are beyond the ownership of individual humans and that all content should be free. It’s a nice idea, but I feel it only works if it’s applied at the same sub-atomic level, to all possessions. Your car, house, cash. They are, after all, only arranged atoms. Relinquishing the concept of ownership might be worth a try, but it must be applied to everything, not just directed against those of us unfortunate enough to deal in the transaction of content which can be distributed without our permission. Downgrading the concept of human rights to include internet access does no-one any favours though. I choose not to have internet access in my home – I just don’t feel the need. Today I don’t have internet access in my workplace. That puts me at twenty-three hours without internet access right now. It’s annoying, inconvenient, and it makes me a little bit riled that my service provider is not providing the service that it is paid for. But do I feel my human rights have been compromised? No.

There exists another option for content creators and providers to react to copyright abuse. It doesn’t get used very often because content creators generally fear the backlash that it creates. ‘Sue the fans’ is the trendy media description for the legal process via which identified filesharers are sued individually for damages. Ellen Muir, a Scottish woman, was found liable via the process just last week and received a suspended sentence. Maybe her first name was something different – again, I can’t check right now – but her surname was certainly Muir. The media bias is pretty obvious. Everything referring to Muir referred to her as a grandmother – implying somehow that bad things just can’t be done by any woman whose offspring has had offspring. The other terminology is stacked with value-judgment too. ‘Sue the fans’. No, sorry, but if they’re taking content without compensating the people who created and facilitated that content, that makes them enemies, not fans. ‘Filesharing’? ‘Unauthorized global distribution’ is closer to the truth. ‘Piracy’? The glamour of the term is misleading – implying a free-spirited insouciance in the face of the law, extreme danger and capital punishment. Hardly the stakes that the freetards are playing for.

Terminology notwithstanding, the situation now arises where the three-strikes law may be deemed illegal. What then for the content creators? Roll over, admit defeat, ‘innovate’? That term ‘innovate’ is constantly thrown at the entertainment industry (which was always amongst the most innovative of industries from the very start) as being the panacea to its ills. The entertainment industries will innovate, but yelling at them to do so, or pointing out that they are top-heavy and outmoded (even if it’s true) is no use unless you can also acknowledge that any industry forced to go from a position where its product is available on a compulsory payment model to a position where that product is suddenly optional-payment, will be damaged. There are many reasons why the creative industries are in crisis. Filesharing is only one of them, but let’s not try to deny that it is a problem. Sweden and South Korea’s music sales grew by 10 and 11 percent the year after they introduced three-strikes rules. The UK music industry seemed content to sit this one out and wait for similar growth in their own territory. So far, it seems to have worked – sales are up on this time last year. Conclusions have been drawn, even though the law has hardly been used yet its outcome seems a reasonable assumption – curb filesharing and sales grow. Apply the UN ruling to the three-strikes law, take it off the statutes book and…. Who knows? My guess is that the major labels, and indie labels big enough to afford the process, will go back to ‘sue the fans’. A glimpse of a music market in growth has been seen, it will be very hard to let it be taken away without a fight.

I’m just riffing here. Robin is in England, recording a new vocalist with whom we are now working on an album. We continue to hope, and innovate. We continue to make music and hope that those of you who like the music we make will take the old-fashioned but satisfying step of just buying it, making it yours, making it something that you engage with, enjoy, define yourself through and appreciate as something more than cultural flotsam. That’s all we can do.

I’ll post this when the router is fixed.


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