ORG logoOn Friday evening the Open Rights Group organised one of a series of nationwide European Digital Rights hustings at St Werburgh’s Community Centre in Bristol. This was a chance for local people to quiz MEP candidates from the South West about their views on digital rights and ask them to sign up to the 10 point Charter of Digital Rights.

Green European Parliament candidate Audaye Elesedy signs the Charter of Digital Rights at St Werburgh's Community Centre

Green European Parliament candidate Audaye Elesedy signs the Charter of Digital Rights at St Werburgh’s Community Centre. Picture credit: Brent Longborough

As Chair of St Werburgh’s and having a keen interest in digital rights, I volunteered my services and was surprised to be asked to chair the event.

When I arrived, Ed Paton-Williams from the ORG had already shown up and there was little to organise in the room apart from setting up the wifi, a couple of notices with the wifi details and the last minute provision of water for the top table.

In alphabetical order, the candidates who attended were:

We were supposed to have been joined by Julia Reed from UKIP, but she pulled out at the last moment. Could this have had something to do with a little Twitter bother?

After a brief introduction from Ed Paton-Williams and a warm welcome to all to the Centre from me, we were off with candidates’ opening statements. All stuck fairly well to the 2 minutes limit for speaking (and many thanks to Hadleigh for the use of his phone with the stopwatch app! Ed.).

As chair I got to ask the first question: has the EU done enough to allow open source software to compete with proprietary products such as Microsoft Office?

Some interesting answers followed: Hadleigh and Jay both raised the cost of licensing for small businesses; Audaye raised the use of open standards such as Open Document Format.

The meeting was then thrown open to questions from the floor. The first concerned data protection and the UK’s government’s desire to make money from selling data provided by citizens. Once again there were some fascinating answers of which I’m reminded of two points in particular: Jay believed people should be compensated financially for the use of their data, whilst Hadleigh stated that companies shouldn’t be buying people’s data. A point made from the floor was that people are very mistrustful of the way the government uses – and loses – data.

The next question from the floor raised the matter of TTIP. Some candidates, particularly those with links to business, favoured TTIP’s implementation; Georgina said it should be given a chance. Other, more wary candidates feared the consequences of TTIP’s proposals to allow corporations to take governments to court for changes to the competitive commercial landscape. TTIP was also seen as a big threat to personal control of data. Snowden’s revelation of US spying on the EU during TTIP negotiations were mentioned by Audaye.

This led neatly into the next matter: surveillance. Georgina thought there was too much scaremongering going on about data collection. It’s there to protect us from paedophiles and terrorism, adding: “States knew perfectly well that surveillance happening… on the internet there’s no such thing as privacy.” Jay responded that we’re struggling with oversight in the UK and that access to communications data shouldn’t be a habitual thing. Hadleigh remarked that the public have to be given a guarantee that they won’t be spied on unless they’ve committed crime. Audaye stressed that Germany has gained a competitive advantage in digital sector because its far stronger privacy culture compared with the UK.

Thangam Debonnaire, Labour’s candidate for the Bristol West parliamentary constituency and a former musician, asked about how the EU should make sure copyright law helps creators protect their income. There was general agreement in the responses that Digital Rights/Restrictions Management (DRM) hadn’t really done anything to stop so-called ‘piracy’, (better known to some of us by its correct definition of ‘copyright infringement’. Ed.). Furthermore, artists deserve better compensation from the likes of iTunes and Spotify. The general impression is that this area still needs attention as the music and film industries are still struggling to come to terms with the internet after a couple of decades.

In one of the final questions, the power of the UK in the EU was raised from the floor. Candidates pointed out that the UK hadn’t really lost any power, but had lost influence due to its attitude. As regards attitude, the behaviour of UKIP in the European Parliament was criticised severely by the candidates. Proceedings in the Parliament were described as generally civilised and polite. However, UKIP’s MEPs were criticised for being rude to their fellow parliamentarians and failing to do any work on the committees on which they are supposed serve.

The hustings concluded with closing statements from all candidates and a vote of thanks to them from the chair.

For me it was a baptism of fire, never having chaired a hustings event before. But the candidates were – apart from a minor bit of mudslinging – models of politeness and made my job in the chair a pleasure. There was none of the two speakers talking at once that I witnessed the previous week at Radio 4’s broadcast from Bristol of Any Questions?

The tenor of the meeting is perhaps summarised by this tweet from local councillor Rob Telford.

This was echoed by others who said very similar things to me afterwards.

There are still a few more ORG Digital Rights hustings to come. Details here.