Social media insights from #DEBill

by Simon Collister in News Google+

Two weeks ago I joined about 200 people standing outside Parliament demanding that the controversial Digital Economy Bill get a democratically fair debate rather than rushed into law without scrutiny during the pre-election process known as the Wash Up.

The Digital Economy Bill has been drafted largely by corporate content providers attempting to protect their industrial business models and includes measures to disconnect alleged copyright infringers without any judicial oversight. Other impacts include forcing open wifi providers, such as cafes, bars, libraries, etc, to close their networks or face crippling penalties if someone downloads copyrighted material. The Bill also gives unprecedented powers to the Government and State to block and censor websites it (or big business) doesn’t like and take over domain names where it sees fit.

In short, the Bill will make the UK’s Internet less free than China‘s and stifle innovation, creativity and economic growth.

On Tuesday afternoon and last night the campaign for and against (but mainly against) the Bill reached its climax as Parliament gave it its second an third readings in the House of Commons. Both the debate itself and the past few weeks of vociferous campaign activity has offered a fascinating case study of what a digitally empowered politics looks like and might even give us a glimpse of what we can expect to see after the General Election in terms of online political campaigning and edemocracy.

So I thought I’d take a look at some the ways in which the Digital Economy Bill campaign has played out online and offline. Before I do this, however, it’s worth noting that it would appear at first analysis that traditional, mass media campaign techniques have also played a significant part in driving the campaign, even around such a digital issue as this one.

The first interesting insight to emerge is the way in which both sides of the debate have attempted to influence the Bill’s content. The tactics can be boiled down to classic ‘behind closed doors’ lobbying (largely carried out by the content industry) versus open, crowd-sourced lobbying conducted by grassroots online activists. While the former tactics relied on private meetings between key industry figures and Ministers, the latter used only the web to publicly identify MPs and key influencers and co-ordinate mass lobbying efforts that included the voices and opinions excluded from the top-down, industry approach.

The tactics of online activists came to the fore during yesterday’s debate when Twitter was used by hundreds of digital-savvy Tweeters to report the parliamentary debate in real-time – with thousands more contributing throughout the debate.

The results are nothing short of astounding. At the culmination of the second reading debate the official hashtag for the Bill – #DEBill – was the 6th top-trending topic on Twitter worldwide. In the space of 24 hours during Tuesday’s debate a total of 17,749 tweets were sent with the #DEBill hashtag (and research evidence shows that hashtagged content is only a fraction of the total relevant content).

The BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones correctly blogged yesterday that the #DEBill’s Twitter backchannel had “a real sense that many people outside were connecting with the Parliamentary process for the first time”.

Compare this online outpouring of expertise, deliberation, knowledge and passion with the number of MPs that actually turned out to debate the Bill on its second reading. Only around 3% of elected politicians, as you can see below.


The second insight from the #DEBill campaign is how campaigners used social media to fundraise. A great example of the power of tapping into passionate networks to achieve shared goals in a short space of time came when 38Degrees and the Open Rights Group joined forces to raise enough cash to pay for a series of newspaper ads.

Within five days, £20,000 had been raised using Twitter, email and blogging to drive donations.

While it’s not the first time campaigners have used the Internet to raise money (others such as The Atheist Bus Ad campaign and Obama both had wider mainstream media and marketing campaigns to support them) I believe the #DEBill example is ground-breaking for two reasons.

Firstly, as far as I am aware it’s the first major fundraising success for online political campaigners, 38Degrees. In case you’re not familiar with 38Degress, they are aiming to be a UK equivalent of MoveOn, the US political activism organisation. Worth noting is that based on MoveOn’s pioneering model, 38Degrees exhibits a classic example of organisational hybridity; something I’ve blogged about before.

This essentially represents a new Internet-enabled form of organising that allows campaign groups to switch rapidly between organisational models and thus achieve a wide variety of aims through a wide variety of networks. 38Degrees’ ‘campaign methodology’ sums this up neatly with the idea that they are “people-powered and multi-issue”

The other observation about the fund-raising campaign is that just as happened with the Obama campaign, once funds had been raised using social media and peer-to-peer networks, in order to reach the intended audience of MPs and policy-makers, the cash was then ploughed into newspaper adverts in The Guardian and The Times. Another great example of the movement building capacity of the Internet being converted into traditional mass reach media to have a perceived effect.

The final insight into what a digitally empowered politics could look like has only really emerged over the past 24 hours, after the first parliamentary debate wrapped up late on Tuesday.

By mid-morning Wednesday a number of creative and powerful tools had sprung up to re-energise the anti-Bill campaign’s momentum ahead of the third (and final) reading.

These tools ranged from campaign videos mashing up speeches from the debate to reinforce anti-Bill messages (see the video at the top of this post) through to the incredible a site created that allows the public to check if their MP attended the debate and providing links what to do next if they didn’t.

Other cool sites that have appeared overnight include the debate content aggregator, Debillitated and What DEBill? which encourages people to sign-up via Twitter to an online declaration of their intent to refuse to accept the Digital Economy Bill if its passed.

Our very own Chris Applegate has also created an awesome mash-up in the aftermath of the #DEBill’s third reading that lets people thank MPs who voted against the Bill. The site shows you which constituencies opponents of the Bill are contesting and suggests you help out with your nearest election campaign.

However, despite all these emergent forms of political campaigning and edemocracy in action, it’s likely that the Digital Economy Bill will become law very shortly indeed.

It’s small comfort that there’s a wealth of great social media case studies being born out of such an ill thought-out piece of legislation. And it’s worth remembering that some of the great examples outlined here of how social media can be used to campaign for greater democracy, such as the video embedded at the top of this post, could in the future lead to sites like YouTube being blocked (as it is already in Iran) due to the creative re-use of copyrighted content. Sad times.

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  • Ray_at_Fatsoma

    I terrible outcome for the UK digital economy and music industry.

    The DEB simply diverts attention away from the much needed shift in emphasis from record sales to live music promotion. The Internet is a highly disruptive technology, and thus the industry must respond rather than continue to use their old out-dated business model. Records should be used as a marketing tool.

    Rather than spending millions of pounds challenging file-sharing sites and consumers, the record labels need to rethink how to extract value from their core competencies. When you consider what core competencies and assets record companies have, it is shocking how they haven’t benefited hugely from this trend. Record labels have a monopoly of the talent, the artists. They must focus on leveraging these “assets” in live music promotion rather than simply letting concert promoters reap the benefits of this industry shift while they pump money into a lost cause.

    If you have a couple of spare minutes then please read my blog at Cheers.

  • suyogmody

    This is, indeed, very sad. It shows that, while digital and social media movements are being noticed, they don't come nearly as close to the power that's wielded by old media and “closed-door” meetings of people in power.

  • Anne

    Brilliant summary Simon, thanks. This debacle for me is ultimately about to an abject lack of ability to come up with the kind of business models that can serve and benefit from the new mechanics on the digital economy. Instead, politicians and 1.0 businesses have reacted simply by resorting to suppression by constituting an act of protectionism of the worst order.

    The lack of knowledge on the subject demonstrated in the House, from Stephen Timms ignorance about what IP stands for on down, would be funny if the consequences weren't quite so serious and the China comparison is not far off the mark; for that alone, as the once supposed seat of free speech and democracy, this country should be ashamed.

    I hope the MP's who were bussed in at the last minute by Whips to vote against the bill take a look and begin to grasp what they have enacted against the name of democracy and how much they have damaged the potential of the UK as a progressive, creative economy, in the name of people who actually are. You've mentioned some of brilliance of what we have to offer in the creative and technical initiatives that have sprung up over the last few days, and for that we should be proud. We stand to gain far more by capitalizing on our collective intelligence for the benefit of many, than by firewalling and banning it for the profit of a few. A look at the business model thinking is where we need to focus to help haul 20th century businesses into the digital age.

  • simoncollister

    @Ray and @Anne Of course, you're both right that the content industries need to adapt their business models rather than think that criminalising their customers is the solution. Of course. It's a totally instance concept revealing how out of touch with reality the content industries are. More pertinently, the laws are only likely to protect industry execs and big earning artists. For most musicians, etc the Interent is a valuable marketing, comms, sales tool. So its a double threat to the industry: their existing revenue stream is dwindling and competition from unsigned artists is increasing.

    Sadly, what little faith I had in the democratic process has long since evaporated. The country is largely managed by corporate and vested personal/state interests :)

    @suyogmody I think this is partly a symptom of the current (corrupt) parliament. Twice as many MPs are standing down at this election and a lot of the new intake will be more digitally savvy – hopefully!

  • Steve

    I think you're forgetting that the campaign not only failed, but the legislation turned out to be much worse than we expected. Web blocking measures were not in the original draft in November.

    More MPs were expected to make a stand about the lack of Commons and felt insulted by this, but they dismissed the emails and Tweets as “the green ink brigade”.

    Group amplification has always been the strength of social media, but it is also its achilles heel. The only success #debill was Stop43 – did they rely on social media? No.

    Learn the lessons – or keep repeating the mistakes.

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  • Ray_at_Fatsoma

    The DEB is ridiculously flawed. The negative repercussions on our society and economy as a whole hugely outweigh any potential gains from combating piracy in this way. It's an insult to democracy by being so blatantly written and pushed through by lobbyists from the BPI and other “music industry” figures. It ignored the British judiciary system by assuming guilt in the absence of proof (IP addresses cannot prove guilt in a court of law). It jeopardises our young digital economy, by eroding the chances of gaining truly wireless cities, and removes any incentive to provide free wi-fi areas.

    What's more, it is unlikely to have any effect on file-sharing, as is evident when you look at Sweden as a case study, where file-sharing has risen since their anti-piracy laws, just now it is encrypted. Instead the record companies who wrote this Act should be focusing on live music promotion as their primary revenue stream rather than protecting an old, out-dated business model.

    For my blog on the implications of the DEB please go to Cheers.

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