Good times, for a change. The Digital Economy Bill has been struggling a little through The House of Lords. While The Lords (and I doubt I’m making too sweeping an assumption here) are probably not the best qualified group to represent concerns over the Bill’s impact upon a future digital Britain, they have been quick to point out the implications for civil liberties. For which we have to thank our unelected second chamber.
Perhaps, while still feeling the frustration at a political system that only listens to it’s people once every four years, there is always the chance that our government will simply cock up this “very bad piece of legislation” themselves. But this is no reason to sit on our arses, these final weeks may be your last chance to make a gesture before it becomes law.
Ok, I’ve calmed down over the Digital Economy Bill a bit now. If you don’t follow my Twitter (and you should, you really should) you may have escaped my incessantly expressed outrage at Lord Mandelson’s old man’s folly which, I am sorry to say, has lost this labour vote in the next election. Labour’s actions over Iraq were unforgivable, yet still to this voter they remained the lesser of two evils. But the day they start messing with my future livelihood, one has to question one’s own priorities.
There is a lot of good in the bill, don’t get me wrong, in fact it is only the parts on copyright and file-sharing where it falls down. But the proposals in this area are so unbelievably, insanely, dangerously wrong that they over-shadow everything else.
The problem is twofold:
1. Firstly, the powers the government are awarding themselves, to shut off internet access to anyone even suspected of file-sharing, are just plain draconian. And placing pressures on ISPs to enforce them will mean many, many innocents will be punished by threatened service providers forced to err on the side of caution.
Removal of one’s internet connection, in an age where most people bank, shop and connect with their friends online is a severity of punishment seemingly understated. It is certainly far beyond the crime, no matter how serious the copyright infringement.
2. Secondly, the gun is pointing in the wrong direction. The aim of the bill is to safeguard Digital Britain’s future. Not it’s past. The weighting towards the needs of copyright holders, at the expense of the new generation of digital media practitioners (the one’s most likely to be cut off, as their net usage might be greater, and less typical, than their neighbours), serves only to protect a fading status quo, not stimulate the new digital economy.
To most young digital practitioners the problem is obscurity, not a failure to maximise their income. Some digital content owners, myself included, are actually in favour of their work being distributed for free via file sharing. They are willing to adapt to the new “abundancy” economics, because they know scarcity economics no longer have the same relevance they once did.
The software industry and the music/film industry face the same issues regarding their ownership of digital content, yet it is only the latter who seem to be struggling. The (younger) software industry is coming up with ever new ways of thinking about digital economies, none of which is reflected in the Bill. Open Source, for example, may suffer. One consequence on insisting everything online comes with a price tag, is that it gets increasingly difficult to give stuff away for free.
At the time of writing the “Don’t Disconnect Us” petition stands at 27,000 signatures. Which isn’t bad (the successful Alan Turing petition had 32,108), but when you compare it to Lily Allen’s (fast becoming the poster girl for copyright confusion) million+ followers on Twitter, it seems but a drop in an ocean of popular ignorance.
Mine is only one opinion, and one vote, in this mess. But, if you are a UK resident, I can only urge you to consider yourself where you would imagine your digital life to be in ten years time, and if this bill serves your needs. And if you disagree with Mandelson’s vision, express your concerns now while it can still make a difference.
It’s an epic yarn, and there is still so much untold around this story, but I need to try and wrap it up it before the anger and resentment bubbles up and the story just descends into a shouty rant. And it wouldn’t be much of a tale unless I can somehow polish it off with a happy ending.
The ending is a happy one because I am still here, writing these words with the experience all behind me. And it could have been a lot worse; I could be protesting my innocence from a jail cell, like so many others have. Sussex Police have a pretty poor record. They were, famously, the force responsible for the wrongful conviction of Sion Jenkins, who spent 8 years in jail as an innocent man, accused of murdering his step-daughter Billie-Jo Jenkins, a case which still remains unsolved. His story should make anyone count their blessings. Sussex Police officers also shot dead a naked man in his bed in 1998. Another guy whose innocence (for he was innocent) was ultimately irrelevant.
According to the league tables, Sussex Police can boast a staggering 643 complaints per 1000 officers (source) which, along with their 23% detection rate, makes them one of the worst performing police forces in the UK. Whether there is comfort or despair in the fact I am likely not the only one to have suffered at their hands I don’t know, but at least one can say they are consistent.
But I want to try and find some positives in my experience. Clearly, it has changed me, and changed my philosophy on life, which is what I intended to write about in this post. But I have realised that this part of the tale is already well told. Last year I wrote a post about Paul Auster, where I touched upon the motivations behind the writing of this blog (every blogger is allowed at least one of these posts in their lifetime). It seemed strange to me that I had so easily overcome an extreme introversion to suddenly want to thrust my writing into the public sphere. This was my conclusion:
I think what I am doing with a blog is objectifying my thoughts, experimenting with a new way of looking at myself, asking what I might learn if I were to see myself as “a stranger”, or an “imaginary being”. You see, over the last two years I have been living through a very strange situation, one that has completely changed my outlook on life. It has forced me to examine myself in greater detail than I ever have before, re-evaluate my moral standpoint and made me question myself and my place in society. I’m not talking about fatherhood this time; it’s something I haven’t blogged about yet, as it’s all a bit close to home at the moment. But I’m sure I will soon, as I seem to have no issue with laying myself out on the slab these days.
With hindsight, it seems perfectly natural that being placed under such scrutiny, and having my privacy taken from me, may give context to a lot of what I have written in these pages. And that, perhaps, this whole blog has actually only had one subject all along.
Is it at all surprising that I should have written at length upon the subject of Universal Automatism, an entirely fatalistic philosophy of a perfectly deterministic universe, during a period when I felt I had little control over my future? And was being under such pressure for a prolonged period what lead me to the point where I could even propose a scientific argument for the impossibility of free-will? My musings upon the stupidity of society, the craziness of UK Drug Laws, the easily misinterpreted messages left in our data trails, how one’s image can be abused in the wrong hands, as well as the sheer existential pain of over-thinking everything, might make more sense knowing they were written while a team of detectives had my life under the microscope, with gigabytes of my private data being scrutinised by strange eyes. The paeans to my firstborn are probably quite typical of new fathers, but perhaps made more pertinent having the threat of losing access to my new family hovering over me.
You see, this is what I have concluded: the way I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb was by exorcising it, by writing shite like this. Diffusing the pressure with a problem shared, even if I wasn’t allowed to be specific as to the real matter on my mind.
Which leaves one question.
Everything is back to normal; I no longer have the threat of my life being blown apart. The fear that put my life into focus these last few years, that gave me this clarity of thought, that I had to work so hard to build into my life, is now gone. My business is booming, and I’ve got a stack of new ideas brewing. I’ve a family to take care of, with my second child on the way, which is going to bring with it a whole new set of challenges to be overcome. I have a very full dance card for the next few months.
My question is, have I got anything left to write about now?
To escape justice you make a deal. This is how the system works. The police arrest the easy target, shake them up, inject the fear, and slap on the meanest charges they can dream up. The idea is that then the guilty party (for all suspects are guilty) will save their own skins by testifying against the next perp up the chain, the bigger fish. This, I presume, was the reason for their preposterous charges; the more life damaging their threat, the greater their bargaining power.
I’m sure this method works quite effectively when they get the right target but, unfortunately, it fails dramatically if the suspect you have bought in really isn’t guilty. I didn’t know anyone relating to their investigation. I didn’t recognise any of the names they tried me with. I didn’t have anyone I could offer up, or any information that might help them. I didn’t know shit about shit, which meant I had nothing I could make a deal with. For me there was no way out of the charges apart from seeing them through to the end and answering to them in front of a jury.
The courts offer a similar guilt-incentive scheme. If you put in a guilty plea at the earliest opportunity (the case management hearing) you are awarded maximum “credit”, which means a reduced sentence. You get the opportunity to change your plea to guilty at various other points along the way, with diminishing credit, reducing to zero if it comes to the jury having to make the decision. Which is nice to know if you believe you are guilty of the crime you stand accused of. But if you are innocent, or worse if you don’t know (for who can really know), there is no similar way out. Anyone not guilty has to endure the maximum length of the procedure. In my case, two years strapped to my ticking time-bomb.
There is no bonus if you insisted, correctly, that you were innocent from the start. You don’t receive any increase in compensation, because there isn’t any compensation. When you are found not-guilty you can’t even expect an apology. Perhaps because such a weak gesture might only serve to highlight the impossibility of undoing the damage.
Lesson learned No 6 – justice takes time
For those two years we lived in limbo. Having the very real possibility of my being sent to prison at any time, and at very short notice, we lived without a future. Like a terminal illness, the threat overshadowed everything we did, and there was never any end in site. When the trial finally happened the overarching emotion we shared was a relief that it was going to be over one way or the other. The fear of going to prison was secondary by then.
Before my arrest we had plans. We wanted a second child, but now we couldn’t be sure whether our first child would have a father this time next month. We wanted to move house, but suddenly we didn’t know if there would be anyone to pay the mortgage. Financial institutions wouldn’t deal with us because I had a “pending” criminal conviction. The concept of innocent until proven guilty is clearly not applicable to the world of commerce.
I couldn’t move job, because my irregular absences for hearings and meetings with lawyers would need to be explained. To weather a lengthy court case one needs an employer who can cope with an employee who might have to take a number of weeks leave on less than a days notice. We couldn’t even book a holiday until the trial was over, at a time when we really could have done with one. For certain periods you have to be available for court if they find a slot, and have to attend given 24 hours notice. You can’t book the time off work for it, because most of the time it just doesn’t happen. I don’t think I’m peculiar in having never had a job where I was so disposable dropping everything on a day’s notice could be accommodated. As you might expect, this caused considerable stress at work, as I went from valuable revenue earner to costly liability overnight.
Of course if I were to be sent to jail none of this would matter, because I would simply lose it all. My child, who needs me as much as I need him, would have no father. I would lose my job, which would mean I would lose the house. I would likely lose my lady too, not just because I could no longer keep her in shoes, but because I would have made a pretty poor prospect as a husband and father.
While I waited in limbo, the police, I presume, were hoping they’d get Dante. Then they would have been able to use me against him. It was in their interest to prolong the process as long as they could; to keep my possessions, to keep the threat of prison hanging over me, to keep me in fear; to ensure my co-operation. But they never arrested him. They still haven’t.
For the process to go the full duration meant that everyone lost out. The police lost their bargaining chip, while I lost two years of my life. If they were to arrest Dante now there would be nothing to compel me to testify against my friend, and plenty to encourage my uncooperation. The only person who has gained from this really, in Mr Dante. Wherever he may be.
Dante, if you’re reading, get in touch. You owe me a number of beers.
When you receive a visit for the police there are two ways you can deal with it. Firstly, there is the guilty way, in which you treat the police with suspicion, you are as uncooperative as you can be, and you give them no information until you have spoken to a lawyer. Naturally by doing this you are implying your own guilt, and are asking for a rough ride.
Alternatively there is the innocent way, in which you treat the police as valuable public servants, help them as far as you can, and try to make their job easier. This way you are a good citizen, your courtesy will be reciprocated and you can hold your head high throughout.
Unfortunately, this is rubbish. The correct approach, the only approach, is the first option. Irrespective of whether you have done anything wrong, whether you are perpetrator, victim or bystander, the first way is the only way. Police procedure doesn’t delineate by vague moral concepts like ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty’; that is for the courts to decide. The police only see the potential for a conviction, which is quite a different matter. If they are knocking on your door this is all they are looking for.
I made the mistake of thinking I didn’t need a lawyer. I hadn’t, after all, done anything wrong (so I thought) and waiting for a lawyer would only slow the process down (so they said). Take it from me, even if you are Mother Theresa, you need a lawyer. Never speak to the police without a lawyer. Don’t risk it.
If there is a moral to this story, it’s not a good one. The lesson is not to steer clear of criminal activity, nor to choose your friends with care, because it was neither of these that created our situation. I acted morally and honestly both with Dante and later the police. Nor is the justice system at fault here. I was innocent of any crime, and the right decision was made when the process finally reached the court two years later. The problem, the only problem, was with the police. Their actions during those two years were not in the interests of justice. Their attitude was to assume, quite wrongly, that I was guilty of something, they weren’t sure what, but of something. And it was this unjust, but purely procedural, victimisation that caused all the damage. The moral, worrying though it is, is fear your police.
If I found myself in the same situation again, the only thing I would do differently would be to not assist the police in any way. I discovered, the hard way, that there are no rewards for ‘helping police with their enquiries’, and the consequences can be horrific.
Lesson learned no#4 – The police don’t want a safe community. They want a scared community.
The police only have one weapon they are free to use on ‘suspects’ without legal constraint – intimidation. And they use it as excessively and irresponsibly as a child with a chocolate fountain. In truth I had little choice in assisting the police because if I had refused to co-operate I would have been kept in custody until I did and taken away from my 6 month old child. This is what they threatened. If I refused to co-operate perhaps they’d have more success if they bought in my girlfriend instead. I could go home right now if I was happy for that to happen. Whether they had the rights to do any of this I don’t know, but these where the threats they used.
What I did wrong, the only thing I did wrong, was to be helpful. They arrested me because I told them I had handled Dante’s money. He had left a large sum with me, many, many years ago, long before there was anything associating him with drugs, back when he was just a hippy without a bank account. Naturally I hadn’t touched his money, just kept it safe, and had pretty much forgotten about it. But telling the police this meant they “had” to arrest me. They said it as if it was just tedious procedure that they had to comply with. The reason why I then had to be arrested under suspicion of “money laundering”, “supply of cocaine” and “supply of cannabis” were less clear, but this was what they did.
Lesson learned no#5 – Nice guys finish last.
And so began the expensive, unjust, traumatic farce. According to them, they had a case on Dante wrapped up and they just needed my help to bring him in and conclude the investigation. In truth they didn’t even know his name. They said I would just be helping finish this job, and by helping them it would put an end to the nightmare as quickly as possible. The reality was that this was just a fishing expedition, trying to associate someone, anyone, with a stash of drugs and money they had found and to try and get a conviction of some sort, preferably with as little effort as possible.
In my attempts to help the police and end the matter as swiftly as possible and get back to my worried family, I offered information freely. While I have never been stupid enough to sell drugs, launder money, fiddle my tax or get a speeding fine, I was naive enough to believe that talking to the police without a lawyer would help speed up the process. It did the opposite.
I was interrogated at length, and they succeeded in ‘breaking’ me. At some point in the first three-hour interview, I mentioned having given my friend a lift on occasion. Immediately following this I stood accused of being his ‘driver’. By having a bank balance in the black I was the ‘money man’. Retrospectively, in the course of that first interview, it was apparent they thought perhaps they could cast me as the ‘brains’ behind a major drugs operation, and if they could crack me I’d give up everyone else involved. Unfortunately, they had the wrong guy.
Regardless though, by being the most co-operative, polite and helpful person they had met that evening, I offered myself as the easiest target for conviction. My only way out was to make a deal.