The Red Flag Act and P2P

Today, my good friend Rick Falkvinge in his op-ed over at TorrentFreak posted about the Red Flag Act. For those that don’t know, it was a protectionist law enacted in 1865 to slow down steam traction engines, ostensibly because they were a threat, but in reality because they were encroaching on the profits of existing big business. A law to restrict new technology because it was threatening the profitability of the old, gee that sounds familiar!

I first came across the connection almost 2 years ago, when writing my consultation response for the Digital Economy Act. A response that was badly mangled by the government in it’s processing.
I’ve not heard of anyone since even aware of the similarities, and ideas I put forward in the response, (which might mean that my response was a failure) until today, when Rick piece was published on TorrentFreak. I did, however, get contacted by someone writing a book
Here’s hoping the idea, that trying to protect existing business from being made obsolete by technology (especially when those businesses were themselves enabled by technology a few decades before) is shown as ineffective and stupid. We can only hope.
Here’s the section from the response.
I find there is not only insignificant evidence that such a restriction is needed, it would be significantly harmful to the future development of technology. It is an attempt to restrict the development of technology, worse, to grant increased powers to those who have a business model that favours the old technological methods and equipment. What it does not do in any form, is encourage any business, or industry to evolve and adapt their business to technology.
Such regulation has been attempted before, and a prime example would be the Locomotive Act of 1865. This act required that traction engines would endanger the safety of the public, and thus legislation was introduced to address that apparent danger. This was in the form of severely inconveniencing the adopters of technology, and hoping to dissuade new users. In this acts case, it required a man to walk some distance ahead, with a red flag, to ‘warn’ other road users. The engines were also limited to an extremely slow speed, 4mph in the country, and 2mph in towns. This limited the use of such engines, as it was no quicker than walking, and usually slower (walking pace is 3-3.5mph).
It was not until thirty years later that these laws were repealed, in the 1896 Emancipation Act. One year earlier, the Daimler Motor Company was formed, the UK’s first car company, ten years after Gottlieb Daimler invented the Internal Combustion engine. Without the Locomotive act, the internal combustion engine may have been developed in the UK, and the British Motor Industry started earlier. Ultimately, there is little doubt that the act was significantly harmful to both the industrialisation of the UK, to the technological development and spread of motorised vehicles in the UK, and to the economy of the whole of the UK in the latter half of the 19th Century.
Some have speculated1 that the act was an attempt to prevent the development of the automotive industry, and was led by members of government and highly influential personages with a vested interest in the dominant method of motorised transport of the day – the railways. This despite the actual economic harm the act caused. 
Similarly, these proposals are prompted by those with a vested interest in the dominant methods of distribution and dissemination at the present time. They seek to control the extent of the use of a piece of new technology that threatens the viability of their pre-existing business model. The proposals are based in inaccurate and distorted facts, and with exaggeration on the ‘harm’ the new technologies cause, with complete disregard for the advantages, opportunities, and economic benefits afforded by the new technologies.
In this case, the traction engines are people’s internet connections, and their ability to share culture. The red flag is the threat of disconnection or throttling merely on the accusation of another (GATSO’s were not common in the 1870’s after all). The prospective motor industry, delayed by needless protectionist regulation are the prospective culture industries that will arise. We can only hope that it will not take present day governments 30 years to see the grave errors of their proposals.

  • As a copyright researcher for the last decade I’ve also come across comparisons between copyright and red flag laws on many occasions in that time, indeed have made such comparisons myself. A Google search gives as one of my comments making such a comparison in 2009, but I made it in the knowledge that it was an easy and well-trodden comparison.

    MANY arguments against privileges such as copyright and comparisons with similarly regressive legislation have been made in the last few centuries. In that respect there is very little new under the sun. The only new thing in these times is the possession by the people of the facility to copy published works and publish infringing copies/derivatives (without having to go via the traditional publishers and press). That is the real force against copyright. Argument is only a means of explaining why copyright can no longer be effective, must cede to the people’s liberty, and must therefore be abolished as soon as possible (to avoid prison sentences being given to Emmanuel Nimley, Anne Muir and extraditing Richard O’Dwyer among other injustices).

    So the red flag comparison may be new to many, but it is actually rather old – but no less the worse for it.

    Deprogramming the public from their copyright indoctrination is going to take a shit load of argument, so keep up the good work!

  • Here’s someone who made the comparison in 1994:

  • ktetch

    Fair enough. It’s not as common a comparison as some arguments, and the documents I’ve been through have made little reference to it.

    Good to know though. Thanks Crosbie.

  • I just love blogs that have dark grey comments on black backgrounds. It’s so cool and pirate like.

  • ktetch

    My design called for much clearer text. It seems Disqus only has themes for ‘light backgrounds’

  • Rick

    You’re simply rewriting history – the Locomotives on Highway’s Act (Red Flag Law) had nothing to do with conspiracy. It had everything to do with politicians sitting on the proverbial fence. They applied existing legislation to a new problem in a bid to maintain public order. In other words, to stop from spooking horse traffic–unlike that portrayed in Hollywood films it was common–and quell the public outcry. Your comparison is a downright fabrication!