'Hey, Tories, who knows what a nontrepreneur is?’
Andrew does the Conservative Party Fringe
Round about now...
Later on, I gave them this anecdote:
BBC Radio 4 has a business programme… and two weeks ago Silicon Roundabout was the feature. The presenter is Peter Day, he's pretty New Age at the best of times, and he sets off to find the future of British business.
Now imagine David Attenborough crawling through the jungle, and he gets to a clearing, and in the clearing, he sees two men in a pantomime horse costume.
Day finds a company that does a web calendar. It’s just a web calendar. It's 'powered by hamsters'. He finds an agency that does room rentals - one of just hundreds of sections of Craigslist that are free, but here’s someone setting up a ‘business’ around it. The others featured were mentors and hangers-on, and the clincher was Last.fm, which has soaked up $300m of capital investment over several years, but never made any money, and doesn’t really do anything any more: it’s a ghost site.
And that was it!
Now there must have been a little voice in Peter Day’s head telling him: “Peter, it’s two men in a pantomime horse costume,” but he still goes through the motions, feeds it a carrot, and comes back saying he’s found a new species of horse.
It’s extraordinary. But that’s the Silicon Roundabout tech scene: there’s nothing there.
Now I said the event was strange – but what could be stranger than the position I found myself in: explaining the virtues of markets to right-wing Tories? It’s like explaining runny cheeses to the French, or bottom-fermented lager to the Czechs. But internet utopianism is a weird kind of mind-rot, even clever and normally rational people can get silly.
Cutting-edge tech: a web calendar
The really hard thing to convey was that the Google and Facebook vision of the network – eagerly embraced by Cameron, for it's all he hears – is quite narrow and backward-looking. Google and Facebook are ad-supported, based on data mining; they’re not merchants or platforms. Money doesn’t change hands. They prefer to be the big fish in a small pond, rather than go out and compete with the BBCs and Skys, say. And so their strategy is to destroy digital markets before they can be created. It’s ruthlessly cynical and anti-business.
Surely a Conservative could get this?
Now to copyright markets and enforcement. I was up against three people who range from lukewarm to hostile on copyright enforcement. I’m a technology libertarian, but I’ve always found the idea you can’t or shouldn’t enforce copyright as a last resort – or that enforcement should be really difficult and expensive – to be bizarre. But a lot of the utopians’ Neverland economics starts and ends with this. At the same time, nobody in the creative industries thinks they can enforce their way to prosperity (many used to wish it, I'm sure), and for years we’ve seen copyright industries favour enforcement over innovation. It's a tricky thing to argue. Mine went a bit like this:
If you look historically every technological innovation has made creators better off by creating new markets. Sorry for repeating myself. But I don’t see why this one should be any different from the predecessors. I don’t see creators as collateral damage – ‘Oops sorry! Your industry has gone’. We have to have a more mature argument about copyright and digital markets.
I can’t think of a market anywhere in the world, where the property rights that underpin that market can’t be enforced effectively. I’ve looked, and they just don’t exist. Right now, getting free stuff on the internet is like picking five pounds notes off the street when nobody’s looking – people are going to do it, they’re going to download pirate material. The idea is to attach consequences to that action, and there’s a tender way of doing it. People will stop if there’s consequence.
Personally I’m not in favour of web-blocking, it’s not a liberal measure; it’s sufficient to remind people of consequences rather than block them. And if there are real consequences, then the decision to click is in their hands.
The problem with the ‘digital rights’ lobby is they’ve never seen an online copyright enforcement they like. They say No to them all. It’s really a very sterile argument. And when there’s so much value to be created, that's nuts.
(I should have added, but damn, I forgot, but once there’s enforcement the ball is really in the content industries' court to save themselves, and create demand. They’d have no excuses left.)
I challenged the others if there was any enforcement backstop measure – just one – of which they could approve?