Editorial and Comment

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Kevin Carey argues against the elite's use of regulation.

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Two steps forward and one step back

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What price rights?

While drafting my speech on ICT disability access and ethics for the recent eInclusion Conference in Vienna I had a fascinating exchange of emails with EU officials.

My opening sentence was: "Even beggars in the EU pay VAT". I went on to discuss the fiscal basis of our claim for accessibility with the remark: "... it is deeply hurtful for people like me to sit in EU discussions where my enjoyment of a right to access information is negotiated away in a package, as something which is marginal or even unnecessary".

Officials were puzzled; they did not see the relevance of these remarks to the ethical debate. Paradoxically, for a primarily economic rather than political institution, they seemed to be more interested in rights; and that's our fault.
For the past 15 years the ICT accessibility lobby has been busy asserting its ‘right’; but I hope we have now learned three lessons: first, any right we assert to accessibility is in potential conflict with the right of publishers to control and maximise their profit on intellectual property.
Secondly, there has been a growing and cynical trend in the USA, EU and UK to extend theoretical rights while cutting the budgets to enable their enjoyment; and, thirdly, in a competitive environment there's no such thing as a 'moral right'.
My question, then, is how long will it take for us to realise this and change tack? What has 15 years of campaigning - time, money and energy - got us? The only major progress has been in the accessibility of television laid down in the 2003 Communications Act although now somewhat battered by analogue switch-off.
And that only came about because the BBC licence gives us a fiscal lever which, then, leads me back to the fiscal lever of taxation in considering our access particularly to Government information services; we should have access because we've paid for it.
It's too late to devise a strategy for dealing with the current economic down-turn so let us consider what we need to do as economic conditions improve.
There will be three factors which critically affect our stance during the next two years.
First, the backlog of demands on public and private expenditure will be swelled by unrealistic expectations of new opportunities; secondly, the temporary slow-down in product development will reverse, presenting a whole new set of accessibility issues; thirdly, the things that people think of as marginal, such as accessibility, will have to be restored.
This suggests that we will have to toughen our act; there may not be a very strong accessibility 'business case' (See Ability 65) but there is a much stronger case for getting what we've paid for. Indeed, our whole strategy for challenging public spending priorities needs to change: nobody takes seriously the argument that says "If we weren't fighting in Iraq we could build more hospitals".
It's a fatuously easy point to make which is why everybody makes it but why it makes no difference. What makes us uncomfortable is the in-fighting in the confined space of an expenditure silo but that's where we have to be which means we will have to sort out where to collaborate and where to compete.
On the whole, there is no evidence that competition in the third sector is good for the consumer. Personally, I would welcome a massive pooling of sovereignty and funding on accessibility issues in Abilitynet.
All these proposals have the common theme that we need to be much tougher and less romantic. There is nothing wrong with idealism but it isn't in itself enough and it certainly isn't a substitute for implementation.
On that basis, we will also have to reconsider the public/private/third sector responsibility split. The disability segment of the third sector is too big to maintain the platitude that it's only the icing on the public sector cake.
During the next five years, debt repayment will mean that public sector expenditure will grow more slowly than either the public or third sectors, so it is tactically as well as ideologically perverse to pretend otherwise.

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