Andy Burnham: In a lawless zone, we must protect the vulnerable

Friday 25 July 2008 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Young people – and today I am addressing 300 of them at the European Youth Parliament in Liverpool – might think this a contentious statement: I believe we should pay for music. I don't mean pay through the nose, as we did from the 1970s through to the 1990s, but the principle must be that we should pay something.

This is really part of a bigger, more difficult argument: that as a society we need to develop a new consensus about the internet, and to challenge the basis on which it has been operating since it began. And if there is any chance of this consensus having legitimacy and durability, it must be led by people under 25. I will invite them to take it up, and pledge that the Government will listen and act.

It falls to the born-digital generation to do this; they are best placed to make sense of the profound social change that came with the internet. We have been mesmerised by its awesome power to change everything, but we have not always articulated what the State's relationship to it should be. We are now urgently reassessing the assumption that the internet was ungovernable.

That's because the old media and their regulatory systems are now under real pressure. Generally, they have served society well. They have produced high-quality TV and radio that has underpinned our democracy. Harmful or distressing content has been restricted. Systems of copyright have kept our creative talents in jobs. And in many ways, the new online world is a force for positive change that appeals to our basic values.

We should welcome the shift of power away from elites and into the hands of ordinary people. We should celebrate the internet's ability to enlighten young minds with new ideas from around the world. We must keep these positives in mind while acknowledging the growing unease about the dark side of the online world. We need to be more assertive and confident in addressing the downsides, particularly when they clash with our progressive values.

The reason there is a political dimension to this debate is because, for some of the early internet pioneers, this movement was intensely ideological. They planted powerful and alluring ideas that quickly developed into the internet's tablets of stone. At its core was an ultra-libertarian, anti-state ideology, best articulated in John Perry Barlow's A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace in 1996: "You have no sovereignty where we gather. We have no elected government ... so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us."

I don't know how seriously this was taken but it was an outrageously clever and far-sighted declaration. Perhaps the music industry representatives were still in bed with hangovers. It goes without saying now that they should have been paying more attention, as should the politicians who were there.

Why should this trouble the progressive Left? Because the internet is a lawless zone, where it is the vulnerable, the poor and the weak who are most at risk from the absence of any guiding rules. Democratic consent on guiding principals upholds the common good, and prevents one group in society pursuing their own interests at the expense of others.

This has not been a fashionable furrow for politicians to plough. But if we don't face up to it, the online world is open to be shaped by narrow forces. The old regulatory systems will be simply bypassed. In different ways, government is beginning tentatively to articulate a new way forward. Wherever possible, it should be voluntary, self-regulatory or co-regulatory, such as the successful way in which the advertising industry has operated for many years.

This approach was at the heart of Dr Tanya Byron's excellent report about child safety online and it can be seen in yesterday's announcement on illegal downloading. If we can't make copyright work in the new age, the prospects look bleak for young creative talent and good for those who seek to make money off the back of them. But we must not shy away from saying that there is some content which is beyond the pale in any civilised society – that the law is the law even on the internet. Parents like me need to agree on basic standards to help us navigate this vast and changing world.

Nothing can be accepted as inevitable. Though technology moves quickly, we can't abandon basic principles that have stood society in good stead for centuries. In some ways, perhaps the older generation has undermined its right to lead this debate. But if my young audience can give us the realistic answers that will work for everybody, today's politicians must listen.

The writer is Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

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