The Digital Economy Bill: A taxation on salt

Regular readers will know how I feel about these things: if you don’t know, then please read The Kernel For This Blog and About This Blog, it will give you some idea of where I’m coming from.

For many years now, I’ve been putting forward the notion that artificial scarcity is something to be abhorred, and that every artificial scarcity will be met, at the very least, by an equal and opposite artificial abundance. In fact, a search of the term “artificial scarcity” in my own blog yielded over 20 hits. The Customer Is The Scarcity. We would do well to remember that.

The internet is a wondrous thing, God wot. It can be used to make scarce things abundant, as Kevin Kelly posits in Better Than Free. It can also be used to make abundant things scarce, as Rupert Murdoch would like us to believe.

People have tried to make abundant things scarce since time immemorial; all they need is to be able to control the factors of production and the supply chain. That’s all. So people have tried to hoard things, to corner markets, to create cartels, to act in concert. Thankfully, society hasn’t always allowed them to do so. Many of these things are seen as abuse of market power and are considered illegal in many places and at many times. Nevertheless, it hasn’t stopped people trying.

And sometimes they succeed. Because they’ve been able to control how something is made, how it is priced, how it is distributed. They’ve been able to control supply.

When you don’t control the supply, your ability to sustain artificial scarcity weakens somewhat. If you think about it, that’s what the Dandi Salt March was symptomatically about, although its symbolical value went much further. I quote from Wikipedia:

The Congress Working Committee gave Gandhi the responsibility for organizing the first act of civil disobedience, with Congress itself ready to take charge after Gandhi’s expected arrest.[12] Gandhi’s plan was to begin civil disobedience with a satyagraha aimed at the British salt tax. The 1882 Salt Act gave the British a monopoly on the collection and manufacture of salt, limiting its handling to government salt depots and levying a salt tax.[13] Violation of the Salt Act was a criminal offense. Even though salt was freely available to those living on the coast (by evaporation of sea water), Indians were forced to purchase it from the colonial government.

Gandhi’s choice of the salt tax was met with incredulity by the Working Committee of the Congress,[14][15] though Gandhi had his reasons for choosing the salt tax. The salt tax was a deeply symbolic choice, since salt was used by nearly everyone in India. It represented 8.2% of the British Raj tax revenue, and most significantly hurt the poorest Indians the most.[16] Gandhi felt that this protest would dramatize Purna Swaraj in a way that was meaningful to the lowliest Indians. He also reasoned that it would build unity between Hindus and Muslims by fighting a wrong that touched them equally.[12]

People who are currently debating the Bill should learn from history. Remember the Salt Tax. Deeply symbolic. Used by nearly everyone. Hurting the poor the most. A means of dramatizing a message. Building unity by fighting a wrong that touched people equally.

Unlike salt, which occurred naturally, digital music does not. Someone has to place it there. And you know something? If the music industry went and avoided the use of the internet altogether, then things might have been different. But once they chose to make music digital and accessible on the net, they waved the genie goodbye. And he took his bottle with him.

Now some bands have done just that, they’ve kept off the web. And there’s anecdotal evidence showing that piracy related to those bands is relatively low as a result, because any availability of digital tracks from those bands lights up like a christmas tree and can be dealt with quickly.

In some ways, it’s worth thinking of the internet as a sense, similar to sight and hearing. There are limit cases where some human beings are able to tell other human beings to shut their eyes and ears: parents are able to say to to small children. But in the main it is not possible to tell someone that she can’t use her eyes and ears.

If you didn’t want someone to see something you covered it up.

If you didn’t want someone to hear something you quietened it down.

And anyway, what was heard and seen was done in real time, there were no persistent copies. All you had were memories.

The problem is, we’ve all grown new eyes and ears, external eyes and ears. They’re called mobile phones. And they have persistent memories. So while the music industry worried about tapes and CDs and what-have-you, they weren’t prepared for the flash memory onslaught.

The mobile phones have gotten smarter, and they’ve gotten connected to the internet. So now memories of what you hear and see can be persisted and shared.

I’m one of those people who likes going to concerts, watching people play music live. And it’s been quite instructive watching what happens in concert halls nowadays. Years ago it was no cameras. And it was easy to police because cameras were big and bulky, and indoors meant you normally had to use a flash. Nowadays, cameras have gotten a lot smaller and better, mobile phones have excellent cameras in them, and the rule has become very hard to enforce. In fact in many places the rule has been discarded, with a replacement saying “no flash photography please”.

The mobile phone is a sensor. The internet is a sense. As natural as seeing and hearing. And it comes with a memory. And makes sharing easier.

People share narratives, stories. Sometimes these stories are embedded with things they saw and heard. The things that we can see and hear and share are now abundant.

There’s a simple way to make sure that something remains secret. Don’t tell anyone. There’s a simple way of making sure something is not shared via the internet. Don’t put it there.

The internet was built for sharing. That’s fundamental, and will not change.

MPs have the opportunity now to take the Digital Economy Bill in wash-up and do just what a wash-up implies: clean it out. If they don’t, and if lobbies like BPI get their way, we’re in for a satyagraha.

Music is about performance, not constipation. Performing bands have tended to do well in many respects, including merchandising. There is growing evidence that there is a high correlation between downloaders and buyers. There is growing evidence that digital music has a high price-elasticity of demand. There is growing evidence that people are happy to pay the artists, they’re just not happy with having to pay monopolist intermediaries. There is growing evidence that digital music is cheaper to produce and sell, and for that matter produce sustainably.

This is actually not about free or paid. It is about artificial scarcity. A dangerous thing. With dangerous consequences, corrupting the basis of the internet.

Otherwise who knows? We may see the equivalent of a Dandi Salt March as the beginning of real civil disobedience, as people fight for the freedom of the internet.

12 thoughts on “The Digital Economy Bill: A taxation on salt”

  1. Thank you JP, for a crystal clear argument. The measures being proposed and the powers being given to OFCOM feel like analogue actions in a digital world. I do think they underestimate the new freedoms that the internet is delivering on a daily basis and the strength of the masses in protecting those freedoms.

    I love the comparison with the salt tax and agree that the sheer potential of the internet and the power it has to permeate our lives could really result in the civil disobedience that you hint at were our freedom and ability to enrich our lives through it to be genuinely threatened. Given your passion for music and my personal admiration of your musical choices which I follow through LastFM and Twitter (and at times are very similar to mine) I want to end with a lyrical quote and there is one that springs out for me and should be played to MPs before the start of the second reading of the bill on 6th April…

    Your old road is rapidly agin’.
    Please get out of the new one
    If you can’t lend your hand

    The Times They Are A-Changing
    Bob Dylan

  2. I havn’t yet read the Bill, not sure how it affects me if it does (far away from the physical location that it will be done) but sure the reference & call to action alike Dandi March is – a way of self empowerment. Freedom is thru self empowerment. Act or perish.

  3. Slightly off topic, but picking up on “People share narratives, stories” and “There’s a simple way to make sure that something remains secret. Don’t tell anyone”

    I suspect these two may be mutually exclusive, I recently wrote (badly i might add) about “persistance of stupidity”, which outlines that an individual often has little control over stories, images or videos that get posted about them. Many of which may not be the sort of activities you want to be persistent, Many of us older folk have probably one or two bits of their past they are not proud off, todays teenagers could potentially be reminded about their ‘not so clever moments’ for the rest of their life, as their “mates” share all the evidance on youtube, facebook, or any other social network you care to mention. Which could impact future employment opertunities

  4. A powerful, powerful metaphor. The Dandi Salt March of our era has already been underway for a while now. Whole industries have gone upside down. New business models are being asked for. There is no turning the tide.

  5. Impressive stuff, and I’m sure you are aware how guilty telecommunication monopolies (natural, legislative or legacy) have been of this “false scarcity” approach.

    It is certainly true that decades of rents can buy an enormous amount of regulatory unreality.

  6. Unlike salt, which occurred naturally, digital music does not. Someone has to place it there. And you know something? If the music industry went and avoided the use of the internet altogether, then things might have been different. But once they chose to make music digital and accessible on the net, they waved the genie goodbye. And he took his bottle with him.

    Though your argument is generally sound, this particular point is incorrect. It wasn’t them that put it on the net, it was us. We ripped it from CDs and we put it on Napster.

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