The Red Flag Act of 1865

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There is nothing new under the sun. When incumbent industries are threatened by a new and disruptive technology, they will use any justification imaginable to kill it in its infancy, trying to convince legislators that their particular special interest is a public interest. It always ends badly.

red flagIn the second half of the 1800s, cars started appearing in Western Europe. At first, they were powered by steam engines, and later by various liquid fuels. We’re currently seeing a rerun of the political game surrounding that development.

As industries become threatened by new technology, they typically embrace it in public and talk passionately about its potential, but only in terms of how the new technology can support the existing industries. Under absolutely no circumstances must the new technology be allowed to come into a position to replace the existing industries.

A famous example of this is the Locomotives Act of 1865 in the United Kingdom, better known as the Red Flag Act. It was a law that limited the speed of the new so-called automobile to 2 miles per hour in urban areas, and required them to always have a crew of three: a driver, a stoker (!), and a man who would walk before the automobile waving a red flag (!!).

The car was fantastic, but only as long as it didn’t threaten the railroad or stagecoach industries.

These industries, it turned out much later, were behind the lobbying that led to the Red Flag Act. The fledgling automobile industry stood to make the older industries obsolete, or at least significantly smaller, which could not be permitted. Therefore, they went to Parliament and argued how tremendously important their industries were, and claimed that their special interest was a public interest. Just like the copyright lobby does today.

Essentially, the stagecoach and railroad industries tried to limit the permissible use of the automobile to carry people and goods the last mile to and from the stagecoach and railroad stations. That wouldn’t threaten the existing industries, and they could pretend to embrace its usefulness.

Today, the copyright industry pretends to embrace the Net, but only inasmuch as they can keep operating as they always have. Any other use needs to be outlawed.

And sure, Parliament agreed in its time that the stagecoach and railroad industries were important. But Parliament made the mistake of seeing yesterday as the present time and eternal: those industries were only important before the technology shift that the car brought, a shift which was already underway. The special laws that these industries pushed through — with emphasis on the Red Flag Act — caused the inevitable technology shift to delay in United Kingdom, and therefore, the car industry of the United Kingdom lost considerable competitive edge against its foreign competition, being ten to fifteen years late into the game.

The moral of the story is that an industry troubled by technological advances should neither be allowed special laws nor be confused with the public interest, but instead be permitted to die as swiftly as possible, so that new industries and new jobs can take its place. If you do the opposite and keep that industry alive with artificial respiration and repressive legislation, you not only hurt respect for the law, but also the future economy and competitive capability.

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Rick Falkvinge is a regular columnist on TorrentFreak, sharing his thoughts every other week. He is the founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, a whisky aficionado, and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot. His blog at focuses on information policy.

Follow Rick Falkvinge on Twitter as @Falkvinge and on Facebook as /rickfalkvinge.


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