This is an outrage

This week, like many of my friends and colleagues, I’ve been very angry about the rushed passing of the flawed Digital Economy Bill. I’ve also been increasingly angry about the nightmarish Twitter echo chamber of people being angry about the bill.

(Let me just say first, I’m with you all, in that the bill is terribly flawed and overly vague, shows the sticky fingermarks of powerful vested interests, didn’t have anywhere like near enough scrutiny, and was supported by MPs who appear to have very little grasp of the issues involved. Criticising some of the bill’s critics doesn’t make me for the bill.)

On Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, while the bill had its brief debate in the House of Commons, there was a lot of Twitter action. The following are all paraphrasing.

There’s hardly anyone in the House! Lazy buggers! This is an outrage!

I suspect everyone saying this was watching Commons proceedings for the first time. As far as I know (and I’m not an avid follower) the place is usually mostly empty. A lot of MPs will be in the building but watching proceedings on TV. Some will, no doubt be doing other things — I know this bill is the most important thing in the world to you, but unfortunately there are always other things happening that other people find just as important. Also, there’s an election on.

I wrote to my MP and they’re not even there! Lazy bugger! This is an outrage!

I’m really proud of you for writing or emailing your MP. No, really, it’s great. At the same time, don’t take it personally. MPs have tens of thousands of constituents and many of them also have genuinely important issues right now. Plus MPs have all that non-constituency parliamentary/governmental/party business to deal with too.

It really is a shame that MPs received so many letters and emails (20,000) to so little apparent effect. But some of the Twitter comments made it sound like MPs have never debated an issue that’s had popular attention before and that because “we”, the internet people, care about this, it’s a personal insult if we don’t get the attention we demand. Reading the #debill hashtag was like being inside the collective self-righteous mind of fox-hunting advocates when they felt Parliament was ignoring them. Not pleasant.

And as for calling your MP lazy… If you honestly know that your MP was spending the early part of this week on holiday or lolling about with their feet up, then yes, they are a lazy bugger and this is indeed an outrage. But before you shout to the world about how shit and useless they are, maybe you should find out if there was maybe a good reason why they weren’t in the House.

The MPs are all at dinner! Why aren’t they in the House! This is an outrage!

See above. But also, Christ, let them eat; some of them will still be following proceedings. It’s 9 o’clock at night and they’re at work. If they spent the rest of the day playing XBox or knocking back martinis, sure, this is an outrage. But I expect some of them have been working all day.

I also hope, if you tweeted something like this, that you’re outraged when the same thing happens to other bills. For example, the Finance Bill debated on the same evening also had a poor showing in the House. I couldn’t work out what the hash tag was for that. If I had I’m sure I’d have found you all critiquing what some MPs were also saying was a woefully flawed bill and being outraged at the low attendance. No? You don’t care about low attendance on any other bills? You do surprise me.

They’re giving up so easily on these amendments! They just want to go home! This is an outrage!

I saw this twittered when Tom Watson MP, hero of the hour, was tabling and then withdrawing his amendments to the bill on Thursday night.

Look, I know the parliamentary procedures are a bit weird. I don’t understand them. I didn’t quite understand what was happening here but I guessed that given there was little time allocated to this bill, this was basically just a way to outline some proposed changes. I think I was mostly right as it turns out.

But I didn’t shout to the world about what a lazy bunch these people were because I didn’t understand the procedure. Aren’t we criticising MPs for not understanding something properly and making arses of themselves? Maybe if we don’t understand something properly we should try and figure it out?

I choose not to recognise the UK’s Digital Economy Bill http://whatdebill.org/ #whatdebill #debill

How old are you? If you’re five and are used to refusing to accept what grown-ups say in the belief it’s how to get your own way, then fair enough.

The rest of you… What do you actually mean? I don’t understand what you’re saying.

Are you saying that if your net connection gets cut off because of one of the bill’s dumber clauses that you’ll refuse to recognise this has happened? That you’ll carry on bashing helplessly at your MacBook wondering why you can’t tweet your outrage any more?

Or have you at least thought this through for longer than it took to tweet, and think you’re prepared to go to prison or something “for the cause”? Really? Will you? I know this bill genuinely matters but have you stated the same about other, even more, serious issues? Like, did you break the law and were prepared to go to jail to prevent the war in Iraq? Did you go and chain yourself to Downing Street’s gates when the government tried to drastically extend the period prisoners could be held without trial? I’d guess so, because these sound at least as serious as the Digital Economy Bill’s clauses.

I’m aware that sometimes civil disobedience (or whatever it is you’re proposing in your vague proclamation) is necessary. But it’s generally a last resort. Think of all the places around the world where we’ve seen fighting on the streets and dramatic protests. Usually, for the people concerned, risking everything they have, it’s because this is all they’ve got left. They’ve tried everything else. If they’re lucky enough to live in a democracy, they’ve exhausted all the options. Have you? While you’re refusing to recognise the Bill — whatever that means — I assume you’ll be spending a good chunk of your free time also trying all the other possible avenues to change available. Joining interest groups, continuing to write letters and emails, telling your friends and relatives why this is important, organising protests, voting. You are? You’ll be doing all that? Good, sorry I doubted you.

So, look, this has all been very ranty. But I’m angry. I’m angry about the bill. I’m angry about the Labour Party being such useless, ill-informed, easily-swayed, big-business-loving idiots. I’m angry at myself for being no better than many of the anonymous twitterers I castigate above. I’m angry at the Twitter echo chamber being an unpleasant self-amplifying, rabble-rousing backchannel where everyone sees things as black or white, win or #fail, with all the subtlety of a Daily Mail front page or a campaigning politician.

On the plus side — let’s end on an up note — I was cheered by some aspects of all this. I was pleased that there are MPs, in all parties, who understand these matters and try to change things. Too few, too late, but even so. Quite aside from this particular bill, seeing MPs stand up against their party whip and speak out against what they believe is right was encouraging. My opinion of MPs couldn’t have been much lower recently, and this glimmer of light was welcome. More of that please.

I’m also feeling positive personally about all this. I genuinely enjoyed spending two evenings watching the House of Commons. I found it interesting and would like to do that more. For the first time in a long time, after months and years of my opinion of politics and MPs and government withering away I’m interested and want to get involved somehow. Even if that just means paying more attention, a fraction of the attention we payed to this bill, that’s an improvement.

Comments

  • I think it’s worth emphasising that it was a 3 line whip on the Labour side, and seemingly no whip on the Conservative side, and a movement or whip against for the LibDems. This led to the odd position that more Conservatives actually voted against than for; but most Labour MPs decided their hands were tied (and had to be present - if they expect party support for the election).

  • I agree about the echo chamber, and for me this is also the first time I have understood (in detail) and watched a full debate. However, Im not sure that just because this apparent lack of interest on behalf of our MP’s happens all the time, makes it ok.

    The entire thing has made me realise that the people in parliament probably dont know too much about most of the things they get to vote on - and that lobby interests are probably far more powerful than I had previously imagined.

    The important thing to come from this for me, is that thousands of people have now been politicised and hopefully will be paying much more attention to things in future - before they get to this ‘wash up’ (and lets be clear, ‘wash up’ is synonymous with ‘rushed’) stage!

    I would like to think the web will change the democracy of the future, but if the politicians who do not even understand how it works get to decide how we can use it, then I have little hope of legislation ever allowing it to happen, at least over-ground.

    Strange days.

  • I think that people seeing how parliament really works are completely justified in their outrage at the process.

    It’s not until you actually see House of Commons debates in action that you realise just how farcical it all is. You think we live in a democracy where your MP acts as YOUR elected representive, but in reality that’s not the case, their first loyalty is to the party. What most people don’t realise that it is a very rare event for an MP to vote against the whip. Seeing the party whip in action destroys people faith in the political process.

    For every issue there are a handful of MPs who understand the issue properly and will debate it sensibly, the majority will just follow the whip. It appears to me that many MPs don’t even care what they are voting for, why should they? - its not going to change how they vote. A letter I received from my MP showed just how ill informed she was about the digital economy bill and yet she voted for it.

    Labour have passed so much contentious legislation in their time in power and there hasn’t really been any hope of stopping any of it.

    Every piece of legislation that is passed matters to real people and those people often know a lot more about it than some of the MPs who vote for it. Why do the uninformed MPs get more say than the experts? If an MP doesn’t understand an issue then they should abstain, and feel proud for doing so.

    We should be able to depend on our political process to have protections against lobbying and bad laws, but ti doesn’t.

    We would have a much better House of Commons if MPs either voted with their convictions or not at all and if they paid less attention to the whips.

    I don’t know how to curtail the whips, but it would restore my faith in the political process if they could be curtailed.

  • While agreeing with many of your points, I have take issue with two.

    Firstly, there is a legal requirement for the finance bill to be rushed through parliament immediately before an election or else the government cannot collect taxes. Lack of debate in this instance is far from unusual.

    Secondly, it is highly unusual for any law with any controversial content to be put through parliament during the wash-up period. Admittedly not all tweeters were offended by the lack of process, but a great many were. Comparing it to the Iraq war and fox hunting is disengenous as those issues were debated in thel house and given the usual amount of time. Due to whips they were passed against public opinion, but at least it was given due process, unlike the DE bill which barely made 4 hours to cover about 50 clauses. There is a big difference between disagreeing with the result and disagreeing with the process.

  • It’s possible some people didn’t treat it as such but I read the point of the (somewhat oddly worded) #whatdebill as being a straw poll of people on Twitter unhappy with the #debill #debacle (needed more #tag #abuse there ;)) though I only saw the retweeted thing not the original.

    Obviously the MPs all have numerous issues of varying priority to deal with - which makes it all the more serious a flaw of parliament that the government can whip through a number of important topics (including the finance bill, and apparently a worrying piece of legislation on requiring planning permission for shared occupancy homes) while the MPs are being distracted and scattered throughout the country in order to start the fight for the next general election, or simply reeling from the crazy number of bills forced through at the end.

    I feel sorry for any Labour MPs who may have actually wanted to stand against the bill but felt they couldn’t due to the whips, but I’ve great admiration for Tom Watson and his colleagues who did risk their party’s support in the upcoming election, though sadly to no avail. It seems to me it make the timing doubly harsh that the threat of having the whip removed this close to the election has massively reduced the chances of any organised backbench rebellion.

    I worry that this is going to set a bad precedent, and that the next government (whoever’s in charge) will table as many contentious bills as possible to land in the wash-up period and put them through by horse trading rather than any sort of representative democratic process.

  • Thanks Phil for the post. I read your post as a call for all of us tweeting about political issues, to think hard about how we can use this new platform to effect real political change (not just social change that we usually refer to). If there was ever a political issue to mobilize the Twitter community politically the #debill issue was it. Now we’re this side of the #debill result- may be now we should think harder about how social media is actually affecting the effectiveness or non-effectiveness of our methods of political mobilization and campaigning nowadays. What do we need to change to become more effective campaigners in future?

  • Thanks for the comments everyone. No time right now to respond in detail, individually. But yes, you’re all mostly right. I didn’t mean to say that Parliament has great processes and all those Twitterers don’t appreciate it. Just that tweets seemed more along the lines of “This is crazy, I don’t understand it, but it’s crazy and wrong!” rather than reasoned thoughts on why procedure is broken and how it could be better. But still, people being exposed to all this for the first time is good, either way.

  • I just took delivery of a Fon router. It occurs to me that plugging that in and sharing my wifi (with the blessing of BT) has gone from a clever, disruptive and legal business model to quite a nice little bit of civil disobedience, suddenly?

  • Great comments on this post so far!

    These are wise words and I agree with everything you’ve said despite being guilty-as-charged on a couple of the counts you mention.

    I think we should resist the temptation to confuse the instant reactions of a pseudonymous crowd, limited as it was to expressing itself in 140-character chunks, with the considered opinions of individuals. The latter have manifested elsewhere - for example in the explosion of quality blog posts on the issue in the last 48 hours. Including yours.

    Twitter’s key use-case is whinging. That doesn’t mean the people who whinge there are necessarily slaves to the mob. Your post needed to be said however I would stop short of dismissing the #debill tweeters and I’d forgive them a bit of angry ranting - in fact I’d wager Twitter encouraged more people to actively engage with and debate the issue than any other medium.

  • I was one of those in the “echo chamber”. What you were seeing was, in essence, a group of frustrated techies who unfortunately knew as much about the parliamentary process as some of the parliamentarians knew about the technology they were discussing and/or voting on. If it’s okay for you to criticise the #debill mob for not understanding what they were commenting on, then surely it’s equally okay for them to criticise MPs?

    But criticism isn’t what’s needed here, really. Both sides have a lot that they need to learn from each other, and the debate of whatever proposals are brought forward in the new session will surely be a lot more productive and useful if MPs take the time (or, more importantly, are allowed the time) to understand what they’re voting on.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t believe that the underlying processes in the Commons are all that flawed, however archaic they seem. The problems here were a lack of time for MPs to understand and debate the issues that were causing such concern, and the use of the whip to force the matter through. Both of these can be addressed, if whoever ends up in Government this time next month is willing. That, sadly, is far from certain.

  • Excellent post.

    One thing I would add (as blogged at http://ldv.org.uk/18807 ) is that the ‘technical measures’ (disconnection) can only be introduced after a further vote in Parliament - so who gets to be elected MP at the general election will make a big difference on how the Digital Economy Act plays out.

  • Great article Phil.

    One thing is for certain, the role that social media plays and will play in society at large. This was one of the first times I’ve witnessed such a rampant social media wave in the UK, obviously due to the nature of the topic being quite relevant to much of the UK Twittersphere.

    Yes, some of the mob was blunt, an no, it’s collective influence was/is a bit scatty. But out of it some genuine direction and calls to action have come about, dare I say it, influencing social change. And that’s quite amazing.

    Is it possible that come GE2010 we could be faced with a RATM/X-Factor swing vote? I’m highly doubtful, but I’d hazard a guess that the largest swing vote demographic is gen-x/y. Could #debill really tilt a shift in the GE2010?

  • Parliament itself has bought itself into disrepute this is the worst shower I have seen on all sides of the House.

    I’m not a newcomer either I’m old enough to have a bus pass.

    No-one was prepared to stand up for their own beliefs or for that matter their own constituents in any of the Parties present!

  • Good Article and the points well covered.

    I certainly was surprised that so few members were in the chamber for this debate, though I have to say I have seen it emptier for other debates. If, as the PM says, our future is ‘the Digital Economy’ then I would have at least expected more attendance from Labour MP’s.

    The Bill truly is a mess and did need more more time for better scrutiny, hopefully when the election is over and the dust has settled, its failings will be better understood it will get a more a detailed review and subsequent amendments.

    But as number of Tweeters, Bloggers and other commentators have said, somewhere in the background is the big finger of business/vested interests. That raises a wholly different question of lobbying and who our MP’s are really answerable to; apart from the Whips that is!

  • The author struggling to understand how it’s difficult for MPs to participate in a ‘debate’ if they’re watching the fucking think on tv. Bless.

  • The commenter struggling to comprehend that even if all 646(?) MPs were present in the chamber they wouldn’t all speak, and if they did all feel the need to chip in their thoughts that wouldn’t necessarily be helpful to the progress of a “debate”, and doing so in a patronising manner. Bless.

  • A really good post and I agree with most of it.

    One thing I’ll pull you up about though. Part of my University degree involved studying Politics and I’m a frequent political anorak visitor to the BBC Parliament channel. So, as well as being an I.T. professional, I am fully aware that the majority of MPs are certainly not lazy. A chamber that looks nearly-empty often looks like that for very good reason.

    However, my “echo chamber” frustration was solely to do with the “wash up” and the leaked memos from BPI which claimed they knew that the Bill wouldn’t normally be passed. Ultimately, what you heard on Twitter for a lot of people was frustration. Bear in mind, all of those same people wrote a lot of patient letters and emails. I was one of the lucky few who had his MP stand up, say his mind had been changed from letters he received (one of which was mine) and voted against the DEB. I suspect people in other constituencies weren’t as lucky, hence the frustration.

    And, yes, the #whatdebill was just a vent for those frustrations and certainly didn’t indicate civil disobedience. It was the only way to get across how angry everyone felt, particularly as a sizeable majority had sent a polite and well-worded email/letter explaining why the measures wouldn’t work (normally with a fair bit of I.T. expertise thrown in there for free).

  • Thanks Chris. I didn’t mean to suggest that everyone being critical about the process of the bill on Twitter was annoying — just those being critical of things they didn’t understand. There’s plenty to be genuinely critical of!

    The #whatdebill thing seemed like the worst kind of… well, I don’t even know what it was. Yes, it showed people that you didn’t like the bill, but it implied something more specific and pro-active without being at all clear what that was. It felt like the Twitter equivalent of wearing a coloured plastic bracelet — a way to show people you sympathise with a cause without necessarily doing anything further.


  • I was a bit taken aback by the debill hashtag - like many others, it seems to rely on lots of Retweets, which argues that people were either spreading the word to their “own” followers, or relying on the sheer number of entries (without a lot of original thought being voiced) trending the channel into public awareness.

    Reminded me a bit of a lynch-mob, with passion overcoming reason in some cases.

    I confess I was disappointed that the bill was stuffed through, but I’m optimistic that the act will receive scrutiny and possibly revision after the election.

    I’m more interested in a legitimate, legal way of registering displeasure - elsewhere I’ve suggested a boycott, during the month of July 2010, of every commercially licensed creative work - books, e-books, CDs, mp3s, DVDs, BluRays, Magazines.

    If this were done widely enough, it would send a clear message to politicians and their influential friends.

    If you agree that this is deeply flawed legislation, massaged through by deeply vested interests, then I would urge you to join such a boycott, and to ask your friends to do so also

    .

  • Very insightful blogpost; particularly about realism on the scale of what goes through the Commons. Quite a few thoughtful comments too. To be fair on twitterers, if an MP is on Twitter then it’s easy right now to reply almost immediately to a constituent on a national issue. What struck me was how many MPs on Twitter avoided comment on the subject, since we were the ones seeing the other side of the argument. Tweeting loudly but staying away from the chamber, as quite a few MPs did, struck me as particularly disingenuous. Your point, though, about the lack of awareness of DE issues in the Commons as a whole being matched by lack of awareness of politics amongst a lot of social media users is quite profound. There will be lots of follow-up in the coming year and it’ll be perfectly possible for people to influence how MPs deal with the various amendments to the Act which will come through as Statutory Instruments (SIs). But of course they’ll need to engage with process rather than simply venting frustration as you’ve said. I’ve mentioned a wee thing about how to do that in my own blog, but on the whole it’ll be a matter of folk staying engaged with the issues over time and trying to gen themselves up on parliamentary processes.

  • Good Post. I’m sorry I’ve stumbled across it so late in the day.

    I totally agree.

    I was puzzled by the “there’s nobody there” and “my MP couldn’t be bothered to turn up” tweets. As you say, that’s what the chamber always looks like. Have they never heard of MPs ‘pairing’?

    And the “I choose not to recognise” tweets just seem sweetly naive & innocent.

    I too was firmly in the #debill Echo Chamber, and I’m still in it.

    I’ve been slowly, methodically, individually naming every (whipped or not) MP who voted for this ridiculous piece of legislation in tweets. (I’m up to the Fs) and declaring them un-electable.

    No, of course this is not the most important issue or bill, BUT it is symbolic of a government that has systematically ignored protest, undermined the role of parliament and eroded civil liberties over and over. #debill ‘s most important attributes are that it is here and now – at the moment when finally UK citizens get their say.

    That’s its significance and why it punches way above its weight. For many dis-enfranchised its a single issue on which they can campaign to be noticed or for payback.

8 Apr 2010 at Twitter

  • 08:39am: Expected to see Lord Mandelson's laughing face filling a stormy sky this morning. But it's sunny blue skies. He's cleverer than I thought.
  • 02:32pm: @doctorow Do you have evidence your MP was lazing around doing nothing? Or was she doing a different part of her job?
  • 02:56pm: @doctorow I have no idea what other important govt/constituency biz was going on yesterday. If you know she was just lazy, then fair enough.