'Hey, Tories, who knows what a nontrepreneur is?’
Andrew does the Conservative Party Fringe
Special report To Manchester, where I had been invited to liven up a Conservative Conference Fringe discussion on digital policy. I shared the panel with influential moderatrix Dominique Lazanski, a former Yahoo!er who recently got the Pirate Party into the Culture Ministry; a young parliamentary candidate called Nick Pickles who had worked with Big Brother Watch; and Jeff Lynn of Coadec, a new group flush with lobbying cash from Google and Yahoo!
I found the whole thing fascinating and very strange for lots of reasons.
First, a bit about the Fringe. The Fringe is much bigger than the conference itself, with dozens of simultaneous talks and panels during the day and piss-ups by night. I believe the Fringe crowd of media, campaigners, lobbyists, NGOs, charities, companies and others outnumbers the conference by almost three to one. Very few seem to set foot in the conference itself – and why would they? The action is all taking place on the periphery.
And why Manchester? That’s quite a surreal choice. There’s a reason the parties traditionally hosted their conferences close to where their base is strongest: the Conservatives were in Eastbourne, while Labour alternated between Blackpool and Brighton. But then Blair began to plant Labour conferences consistently in Tory territory, pushing the Tories up to Labour’s traditional heartlands, where there are big conference centres.
I know Manchester very well, having lived in the city centre for years, a long time ago, back when very few people did. Now thousands do. A huge area had been sealed off with gigantic yellow barriers, stretching from Deansgate to the Central Library to the Britons’ Protection, to prevent truck bombs, presumably. You could through in unimpeded, but all vehicles were absent. So it felt like a catastrophe had hit the town: only lobbyists and the odd lost delegate strolled the vast, mostly deserted exclusion zone. It was like being in a film. 28 Days Later, perhaps. I have a recurring dream of Manchester in which the place looks and feels like Blade Runner – and I’m always looking for a Pakistani curry cafe beneath an aerial tramway close to a dream version of Piccadilly station. But the reality was far, far stranger than dream space.
Outside the Free Trade Hall, a Liverpudlian preacher was ranting about how we’d pay the price for fornication and adultery. Did he have anyone in mind? Was he going to meet Boris?
Now, the fact that the Fringe attracts so many lobbyists is frowned upon – but not by me. I think you have to be clinically insane to join one of major political parties today; you must certainly endure disappointment on a masochistic scale. It makes much more sense to me to join a trade association or a more generic lobby group. As the political (i.e., never-had-a-job) class becomes ever more homogenous, it’s what bright people do now. They lobby. And the internet has lowered the barriers to entry; nobody knows it’s just you in your shed with a few mates. (Here’s the splendid James Firth, IT consultant by day, and one-man lobby group by night – currently seeking Google cash.)
Even stranger was the mood of the Tory supporters now they’re finally in government, but are unable to get very much of what they want. On the big issue of the day, the euro, the rank and file have completely won the day, a quite resounding victory. As Peter Oborne put it recently, not only were the Tory sceptics right on the European currency issue, but “right for the right reasons”. They’ve won on the Human Rights Act, too, popular a couple of years ago but now universally despised by all but a few LibDems.
So you’d think they’d be lording it over the conference. But there are no prizes for being right, they’ve been robbed of their political capital. The leadership isn’t going to oblige them, and throws them a few peanuts instead. The leadership dares them: where else are you going to go? Well, a million of them peeled off to UKIP, which may have cost the Tory Party a majority. As an outsider, this seems to be extremely cynical leadership.
The Tories' roundabout problem
Here’s what I said in a nutshell – then some of the comeback, which got quite lively. On copyright I’d be outnumbered three to one, a better ratio than most of the time. My logic was thus: at least one member of the panel is going to be so angry with me that I’ll probably get punched, so there’s no point beating about the bush.
The Shoreditch "Tech Scene": it's a non-stop social whirl
You all know what an entrepreneur is. But who has heard of the word nontrepreneur?
There were amused and bemused looks.
Well you’re going to be hearing it a lot.
We’re in an exciting time for the internet. This great wave of utopian rhetoric and getting everyone online, for the last 15 years, has come to an end. Almost everyone who wants to be online is online. Something quite new and interesting has happened in the past three years, people are beginning to pay for stuff.
The internet today lacks markets and it’s half-finished. The platforms and infrastructure that recognise and create value aren’t there.
Now words come to define political eras and philosophies, and the last ten years were defined by words like 'beaconicity' and 'targets' and all these agencies spending other people’s money. I have a horrible feeling that Cameron’s technology policy, despite being guided by people with strong classical liberal instincts, will be defined by the fluff of Silicon Roundabout.
Silicon Roundabout is, essentially, a prank on the media. Let’s see who’s involved. You’ve got what I call faux capitalists – people who want to be thought of as capitalists but are terrified of risk and don’t back ambitious high-risk ventures. You’ve got entrepreneurs who can’t run a business. And you’ve got programmers who can’t program. All looking for each other. Then there’s a vast army of hangers-on: mentors, facilitators. And they all socialise endlessly, instead of doing any work. The socialising is work.
This does not create wealth.
As soon as we start to “un-fetishise” this myth of two guys in a garage, and start to think more seriously about, say, payment platforms or credit systems that make buying stuff nice and easy, as easy as real life, then we’ll create markets. You won’t get this from Shoreditch.
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?
The Right on copyright
First Jeff Lynn said he was happy with the court procedures as they stood. After my challenge, and I pointed out it cost £1m and took 18 months to take down Newsbinz, he said he was in favour of fast-tracked procedures for blocking, as long as “due process” (he’s American) could be respected. He’d be surprised if due process could be performed in two hours, though.
(I thought that waving a piece of paper in front of a judge usually works.)
The other two panelists didn’t offer an enforcement proposal they favoured.
Pirate Party Blokes
While it was a circuitous discussion, the panelists nevertheless made some interesting points. Jeff Lynn said it had got easier to start a business here if you were from overseas – a real change. I was impressed by Nick Pickles, who seems to have lots of jobs and interests – a music photographer, briefly tech PR – not what you expect from a parliamentary candidate. Much of his writing is against copyright enforcement measures, but he said he’d had to face the reality of infringement, and the effect piracy was having on his business.
He was quite passionate about data protection, too.
"The last Data Protection Act was written before Google existed," he said. "That’s a fascinating thought now. Huge stores of personal data exist now and the rules we use to protect privacy were written when the worst thing could happened to data was that a paper record was lost.
“The Information Commissioner has called three times for extension of DPA to include prison sentences.”
Pickles called for a lot of government data to be opened up for new uses. It’s hard to argue with that.
As I left the Fringe I reflected on how strange it was to find myself explaining that markets hadn’t been created – and to be on a panel of people arguing against enforcing property rights.
We’re invited to believe two things. Although humans are endlessly inventive, we’ve created something for the first time in modern history where property rights don’t apply and where markets can’t be created. Incredibly, doing these two thing is beyond our imaginative capabilities. The internet must truly be from another planet!
"Digital networks are depicted as forces of nature. The idea that anyone might try to shape the future, to influence events, to innovate with an outcome, is seen as foolish – or indeed out-of-touch," said one media mogul two years ago.
Don’t apply traditional rights to it, don’t try and stop it. Leave it all to Google.
Strange times, indeed. ®