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 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It was not until thirty years later that these laws were repealed, in the 1896 Emancipation Act.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.