Rant: Bring back the ducking stool for IT contracts

With an election looming, Britain’s scientists are calling on the government to do something. Anything. And Everything.

I know we’re supposed to despise them, but at times like this, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the UK’s politicians.

Like journalists, Members of Parliament are massively outnumbered by a population which almost universally despises them, while simultaneously demanding to enjoy the fruits of their labour.

In the UK there are six public relations executives (at least) for every journalist. I don’t care what the rules of supply and demand say, this has actually weakened the position of hacks. The courting of journalists was once a long game that involved flattery, friendship and fine wines. Now that hacks are in the minority, they’re hounded, rather than courted. Having been dug out of their lairs, chased by a pack and finally cornered, they face a baying mob barking questions at them. Can I buy you a coffee and, if so, when can we expect coverage?

Politicians, who would generally be against this sort of cruelty, do nothing to help. They have no sympathy because they are even more ruthlessly courted. The techniques vary, however. Some of the MPs are seduced by incredibly sophisticated campaigns. The ones that have no effect, in the UK at least, are the IT industry lobbyists, who have all the charm and sophistication of a hungover John Prescott with a nail in his foot.

Hardly a week goes by without a press release being issued, calling on the government to drop everything and indulge one section of the IT industry.

“Britain must invest more in structured cabling to compete globally,” we will be told, by a leading structured cabling seller. “The UK is falling behind on data centre air conditioning,” we will be warned, by the Association of Air Conditioning Distributors. “Britain is sleepwalking into an open systems abyss,” the MD of Closed Systems Global will argue.

Their messages may vary, but they are all united in their naked self-interest and lack of guile. Which is a shame, because the IT industry could do with better representation at a national level.

Perhaps a change of approach is needed. Just as journalist-PR relations were better when spin doctors didn’t expect instant returns on investment for every act of common courtesy, maybe the technology industry could play the long game too. A few gestures of goodwill might not go amiss, before they start demanding changes in their favour.

The IT industry could win many hearts and minds by proposing a bit of self- regulation. That would wrong foot the critics and put the public (and their political representatives) in a more sympathetic frame of mind. Why not start with a call for taxing legalese? The IT business is notorious for devious contracts. Yes, a few terms and conditions are necessary in any agreement. But any company that writes Ts and Cs that run to more than 100 words is obviously up to no good. And yet millions of gullible punters are fooled into signing up. What about a law that penalises, through taxes and fines, needlessly long and complicated terms and conditions?

The same could apply to software licensing agreements. The US Constitution is arguably the benchmark for well-written legislature. If you can regulate the most powerful country in the world in 4,543 words, there is no excuse for a software contract running at 10 times that length.

What about a fine or tax (they’re the same thing in the UK) at £100 a word for every word that the licence runs over an agreed limit? If your Ts and Cs exceed 200 words you’d get financially clobbered under this new proposal.

Or better still, introduce Ducking Stool-type justice. Under this system the lawyer who drafted the contract would be held under water, while an actor reads out the legal mumbo jumbo they have created. If the lawyer can’t hold their breath for longer than 60 seconds, then they might want to think about editing down the legislation.

Another technology that actually lowers the quality of life is the surveillance camera. It could be a power of good, but it’s become a tool of oppression. So a bit of self-regulation would win IT lobbyists massive approval. 

What about lobbying for an equality law, so that all users (and potential abusers) of CCTV have to have the cameras turned on them too? So, by law, we could observe what Metropolitan Police Chief Bernard Hogan-Howe is up to all day. And the Police Federation. And all those local council employees who use anti-terror laws to spy on the public. Lobbying for this change would not only win more sympathy for camera makers, it would help them sell more units.

These self-effacing acts would get the IT industry far further, I would suggest, than endless requests for more money and favourable laws. This isn’t America. Nobody likes brashness and, besides, our leaders don’t really get technology.