It's the new year, usually a good time to reflect on what's been happening in the past year and what we hope to see in the coming one. These last few weeks I have been reflecting, but the fruits of these reflection is not, I'm afraid, very positive.
I have seen with a increasing worry the crucially important topic of IT and internet development get political and mainstream attention these last few years solely through one prism: digital content rights. Whether HADOPI in France (which although voted in prior to 2011 kept making the headlines last year), SOPA in the US and numerous variants of either in other countries, that is the only IT topic that has been visible politically in 2011.
Not only is it depressing, it's non-sensical. Don't get me wrong, dealing with issues related to digital rights is important. It's a lot more important in industrial IP than it is in content (in my opinion) as the current patent wars in mobile technologies fully illustrate. The framework for intellectual rights hasn't really been altered in over 100 years so clearly it is in need to rethinking. That's exactly what politicians accross the world are not doing with laws like HADOPI and SOPA.
More importantly though, digital content rights, which are at the heart of all these political discussions (and as a consequence are often seen as the only IT related issue by both politicial decision makers and the public) are a really really tiny problem.
The content industry, if you aggregate music and TV/Cinema (other content industries like books or photography are not sexy enough to be considered as part of these discussions… or maybe they're not lobbying hard enough!) is a really tiny industry in terms of jobs and wealth creation. If you don't believe me, read the timeless Content is not King by Andrew Odlyzko. The numbers may be outdated, but they're actually evolving in a direction that reinforces the trend (ie. content is getting smaller relative to networks).
Meanwhile, the internet as we know it (and more generally ubiquitous connectivity) is an economic powerhouse. It creates jobs and wealth, it has led to the emergence of a new generation of entrepreneurs all over the world, it has driven huge efficiency gains in businesses, with about as much or more to be gained still. It has opened new markets (and yes, disrupted a few).
As far as politicians are concerned though, all of that doesn't count! The internet is evil, because it's not centrally controlled. And that allows artists' works to be pirated. Incidentally, it also allows for politicians' snafus to be broadcast far and wide, and I suspect that's in part why they like the idea of a centralized control so much.
So the trend is there: kill the internet to protect the artists. Politicians would never agree publicly that this is what they are doing, but it is. In order to protect a few (generally already wealthy) artists and their labels, they are willing to sacrifice the golden egg goose. That's bad enough, but it's not the heart of the issue as far as I'm concerned.
Politicians and governments should be focusing on transforming society with connectivity in mind instead of viewing it as the serial killer. How come 20 years after the emergence of the internet administrations and governments all over the world are still being run like they were in the 80s? We're neck deep in debt, isn't it time for the efficiency gains that we've seen in private businesses to make it into public institutions?
We're tackling huge issues collectively of resource scarcity, pollution, unbalanced welfare systems, looming healthcare crisis, excessive urban development, etc. and our politicians miss the forest for the tree. Instead of looking at networking as a means to address some of these issues, streamline the antiquated processes that are at the very least a hindrance to finding solutions – if not part of the problem themselves – they choose instead to demonize it to protect a tiny corner of the economy.
The irony is even starker here in Europe where most of the efforts to bridle the internet are deployed to protect Hollywood and large US record companies. At the same time our politicians complain that most of the internet economy is happening in the US and hamper European companies in order to protect an essentially US-centric industry.
And the worse is that we – the public – fall for the trap. We get distracted from the real opportunities as well, by all this pandering and posturing. There are major elections in many countries this year. Presidential elections in France and in the US. Let's make them matter. Let's challenge candidates not on how they intend to deal with digital rights but on how they intend to make IT and the internet count. How they expect it to shake tomorrow's world.
I don't expect them to have convincing answers. I do expect it to shape how I will vote. This is not a single-issue platform, this is a societal issue. It's about time we collectively embraced it. It may be a crucial key to extricating ourselves from the economic quagmire we have let our politicians facilitate.