Where the campaign against Peter Mandelson has got it wrong

I support the campaign by the Open Rights Group and others against Peter Mandelson’s proposed crackdown on illegal file-sharing.

But in agreeing to call the proposals “three strikes and you’re out”, I think the campaign has ceded an important advantage to Peter Mandelson & co. That is because, taken on its own, that phrase actually sounds pretty reasonable.

Imagine someone hearing of the proposals in a mainstream media story where the limitations of time and space often mean little is said about the detailed pros and cons of a policy. The very name itself – “three strikes and you are out” – makes it sound reasonable: You have to do something wrong three times before you get punished? What could be wrong with that – except perhaps why be so generous as to wait until the third time?

For policy and political wonks “three strikes and you are out” may bring up negative thoughts of draconian sentencing laws tried out in the US – third offence equals heavy jail sentence – which have resulted in lengthy jail sentences for minor (third) crimes. But for most people, using this description makes the policy sound decent.

That is particularly ironic given the practical details with Mandelson’s plan means that in practice it would be anything but three strikes and you’re out.

People knowingly share internet connections (e.g. within a household). People unknowingly share their internet connection with others (e.g. when a computer is infected with malware). ISPs are not exactly strangers to making a mess of customer records, such as about who has got which internet connection. And so on – including, most perniciously, an assumption of guilty until proven innocent.

In other words, far from “three strikes and you’re out”, it’s far more a case of legal roulette. Just because you’re innocent won’t stop you from being treated as guilty and having to acquit yourself from someone else’s actions.

What to call it instead? Ah, um… I’ll admit to having not come up with a good alternative so far. But I’m sure the campaign will do better if someone does.


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