Years ago, we were told that mass democratic participation was was going to be revolutionised by the web. One click was all it would take to effect change - if only enough people clicked. We would tweet truth to power. Instead of arranging to see an elected representative, we could fill in a handy web form. The future belonged to the web savvy, and their “swarm intelligence”. Against this, The Man wouldn’t stand a chance!
Three examples this week suggest otherwise, reminding us that robo-responses are zapped faster than any shredder in the world can destroy paper.
Last week the UK government ripped up a public consultation into the future of the BBC because almost all the responses came from one source, the pressure group 38 Degrees. The group claims to have 3 million members and organises campaigns on a range of Left-leaning issues, describing itself modestly thus:
“38 Degrees is the angle at which snowflakes come together to form an avalanche – together we're unstoppable.”
But 38 Degrees doesn’t look so unstoppable today.
The group generated 177,000 ranty emails to the Ministry of Fun*, warning Culture Minister John Whittingdale not to “rip the heart out of the BBC”.
38 Degrees didn’t put any checks in place to stop people sending multiple letters. DCMS had to pull 25 staff from their normal duties to deal with the robotically assisted avalanche, or 10,000 man-hours of work. Eventually 92 per cent of all the responses for the consultation were sourced via 38 Degrees. Whittingdale decided this was unrepresentative, scrapped the consultation, and has started it all over again.
The EU this week binned thousands of responses to a copyright consultation generated by a Canadian lobbying group OpenMedia, a groupuscule funded by Canada’s technology industry. In December, OpenMedia declared that the European Commission was going to “copyright the hyperlink” and urged people to submit a roboform to “Save The Link”. Scared out of their wits, 75,000 people did just that.
The problem was that the scare was entirely bogus. Even academics hostile to copyright declared that the EU wasn’t proposing anything of the sort. The protections safeguarding publishers large and small would remain intact.
The government has another robo-problem on its plate, also caused by opening up policy to the wisdom of the slacktivists.
Last summer the IPO sought views (pdf) on industrial scale online copyright infringement.
This is mildly remarkable in itself; we don’t normally invite criminals to decide how long they should spend in prison, and sentencing has historically been left to our independent judiciary, not crowd-pleasing politicians. An independent judiciary is regarded as the hallmark of a free and open society. But let’s park that one for a moment.
In the UK, punishments for criminal-scale infringement are different for physical and online infringement, with punishments for physical infringement, such as bootlegging DVDs, set higher – to a maximum of 10 years. But broadband is now ubiquitous, and you can “bootleg” online by operating a pirate site on a far greater scale and far more easily than you can copy physical DVDs.
The 2005 Gowers Review recommended raising the online sentences to match the physical sentences. The consultation posed the question: “Should the maximum custodial sentence available for online and offline copyright infringement of equal seriousness be harmonised at 10 years?”
Once again, a pressure group swung into action. The law shouldn’t keep pace with technology. The Open Rights Group, while acknowledging that online infringement could lead to economic losses in the millions, argued that sentences were already too tough.
Like OpenMedia, the ORG raised a scare-based campaign, advising, improbably, that:
“Many internet innovators, prosumers, online creative communities that create non-profit derivative works, fandom producers, etc. All these people – many of whom technically breach copyright in their activities – could find themselves facing prison sentences if making available carried a maximum sentence of ten years.”
This was indisputably incorrect. A case of "industrial scale" infringement meriting a custodial sentence would never be brought to a fandom producer with an audience of a few dozen fans, and made to stick. Such cases are very rare anyway. The law simply doesn't apply to these cases.
However the IPO now has a problem. Altogether 28 organisations responded, with 20 supporting bringing the online law into line with physical. Eight organisations opposed. Sixty-six individuals responded. And 938 responses came from the Open Rights Group’s campaign. That’s 92 per cent of all responses.
Given that the ORG’s own response was misleading, we can conclude that many of the ORG-inspired respondents were in reality answering a question different to the one the IPO had actually posed. It’s a bit like asking the public whether grapefruit should be made illegal, and you get 1,000 respondents who are adamant that bananas shouldn’t be banned. What do you then do with replies? (There is a Two Ronnies sketch in this vein, which some older readers will remember).
We gather that the IPO is weighing up how to grapple with this thorny issue. Perhaps it could it use 1/720th of the response, on the basis that even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day.
And it isn’t just slacktivist NGOs. In India, the telecoms regulator TRAI has rejected more than three-quarters of the 1.8 million responses it received on a public consultation because they were auto-generated by Facebook.
Either way, the strange notion that we people would participate more by doing less, but by doing less electronically, no longer looks very persuasive. ®
* The UK's Department of Culture, Media and Sport