This week, The Digital Economy Bill is being passed through the House Of Commons. Though I am aware that some of you have been following it’s progression with interest, most were not aware of it until it was the subject of last Monday’s Panorama documentary. If you missed it, you can watch it here until this coming Friday (March 26th).
Last Monday’s show, entitled ‘Are The Net Police Coming For You,’ was one of the first episodes I’d seen where I was more familiar with the subject matter than I am with the inside of my own nose. This meant that I got angry, with my disgust probably on a par with the disgust of an onlooker as they watch me research my favoured subject matter mentioned above.
BUT I WAS NOT THE TARGET AUDIENCE, and this is the key point when assessing it. It was certainly a FAR more balanced view that Mark Thomas gave in his recent piece on The Culture Show, which seems to be the basis of many people’s discussions with me. You watch it and read about how this bias was achieved here.
This is my attempt at giving you the chance to understand exactly what the issues are, with no opinion from myself. If you’ve been following the progression of this bill and are aware of the below facts, please skip this and take a look at my thoughts and recommendations here.
The bill first materialised in the Digital Britain Report, and was first announced in the Queen’s speech in Nov ’09. It is a bill broader than most realise, and is designed to enable the digital media industries to tackle the challenges of online piracy, ensure the safety of the broadcast industry (which caused the 6 music repercussions), enhance the digital infrastructure, and many other issues which have been well summarised here. However, it is the issues that most directly affect our use of the internet that I will focus on here.
Few are against the need for a radical update on our laws. However, it is the ways in which government will intervene that is causing concern. Under the laws of the bill, if there are multiple accusations of copyright law infringement at a single IP Address, a copyright owner can ask the ISP to ‘temporarily suspend’ the users connection as a last resort, after a series of warning letters and fines. There are also measures that can be used to block sites that allow for “substantial” infringement, though there is no definition of the word ‘substantial’. These can be seen in full in clauses 11-18, viewable in full here. It is these parts of the bill that have caused the most controversy amongst passionate consumers of media, technology industries, artists, and ISP’s. Human Rights groups have even got involved, who claim that access to the internet is a human right and shouldn’t be withdrawn under any circumstances.
Many amendments have been made in an attempt to react to the pressures applied from external stakeholders, and though there have been improvements many say there are still several points that need further debate. The aim of the rights holders (e.g.. Record Companies) is to get this passed as soon as possible, before the next General Election is called, as they know that a proper debate will simply take too much time and will result in the bill being massively delayed. The counter argument is that in its current form there huge flaws in the practicalities of the bill, that there are too many areas open to wide interpretation and abuse, and that if it is forced through now the bill will simply have to be re-written at great cost to the public in the coming years.
There has been much talk about Clause 17, which was removed at the start of the month. This clause allowed the Secretary of State to change the law at any time, without having to pass it through parliament, as a way of amending the bill to keep it relevant in the rapidly evolving digital landscape. The clause was met with huge opposition, and has morphed into…..
Amendment 120A (now Clause 18) addresses the inherent problems with Clause 17 and restructures it’s focus. One section enables the High Court to grant an injunction requiring Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block access to websites that persist in hosting a substantial amount of copyrighted material. The amendment was put forward by the Lib Dems with support from the Tories, but it was criticised after it surfaced that their words were identical to those written in an open letter from the BPI some weeks before. You can view the original letter from the BPI here, and the Lib Dem amendment here (to view the appropriate section search for (by hitting ctrl – F) ‘Clause 17’).
They have since put forward another amendment to this which has been brushed aside, but will be included in the ‘wash up process’ (where unopposed clauses are passed and approved behind closed doors) that’ll happen in the House of Commons. This allows the courts to ask the copyright owner to “reimburse any loss or damages, including costs and legal fees, incurred by the applicant … or by the service provider”. However, they also look to address the 35% of online file-sharing that allegedly takes place on ‘web-locker’ services such as wide ranging as yousendit, rapidshare or google docs. Under this clause, any site that hosts copyrighted material will be at risk, which even affects websites as wide ranging as Wikileaks (which hosts copyrighted documents that have leaked into the public domain and is an advocate of free speech) to YouTube.
For my thoughts on all this, please click through to my next post here.