Letting go and empowering people

This is the second of a series of articles looking at the challenges the new government faces. Alan Cox is a Linux software developer and is a member of ORG’s Advisory Council

Much of the discussion on the problems the new government will face has concentrated on questions about how culled projects will be replaced. The past tells us that when huge over-budget sprawling projects collapse, as the enormous stock market Taurus project did in the 1993, everyone copes just fine. The contingency measures they have put in place in the meantime usually turn out to be superior anyway. As Helga Drummond, who studied Taurus, said: ‘a week after it collapsed no-one could recall why they ever wanted it.

The bigger challenge revolves around the idea of a ‘big society’. As a free software developer I’ve worked in a big society for nearly twenty years. You learn a few things in the process. One of them is that you have to remove restrictions to empower people and the other is that you have to truly share autonomy and information.

The new government has already had its hands in passing laws that work directly against a big society. The Digital Economy Act threatens all those volunteers and contributors who provide free wifi access to their communities. Elsewhere it will need to step in and and prevent Ofcom permitting the BBC to encrypt television signals and shutting out British innovators and community groups who want to provide facilities such as dyslexia friendly subtitle display that are not commercially available.

Artists and creative groups have been largely ignored in favour of big media but their role in any big society is huge. As the internet has shown any big society can only succeed if those within it can communicate their ideas clearly and boldly. Yet today artists often cannot mash up and rework government data and musicians who allow their music to be played without a fee non-commercially generally lose their ability to collect royalties for commercial re-use !

A big society means thinking about how the law works. It means passing laws that punish those who do offend, not nanny state laws removing the ability of the public to contribute to society for fear they might be naughty. It means creating a functioning creative market that reflects the world we live in and encourages creative output rather than channeling it into a tiny number of established mega-corporations who act as door keepers. Above all it means trust not restraint. It means trusting that most people will do the right thing, and trusting that the police and justice system will do their job with the rest.

So here are some real challenges for the new government in the digital age 

  • Reform the collection agencies so they are efficient and so their operating rules respect contribution of work to allow free non commercial use. Maybe there should be several of them as a functioning market?
  • Stop OFCOM from taking away the ability of volunteers and the big society to help those who have trouble watching television
  • Fix the Digital Economy Act so that we have a fair and balanced set of laws that protect volunteers helping their communities, small creative groups and artists, not just big media, rather than a law to shut down community wireless
  • Finish off the Gowers reform work. Isn’t it about time it was no longer technically an offence to copy a song off a CD you own onto an MP3 player ?

There is a first challenge however. A gauntlet laid down by the Australian conservatives. The Australian budget was published with a creative commons license allowing the public not just to review it but to reprocess it, to generate new data and insights into where their tax money goes and how it is spent and to allow society to participate in making things better.

If they truly believe in big society not big government let us have our budget under a similar licence.