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Brief on Digital Economy Bill

Friday 19 March 2010

What we are calling for

We want a debate.

After the budget, the Bill could be passed with little or no debate, as the election must be called within the next few weeks. The result could be that the Bill becomes law in very bad shape.

The Bill is technical and deep problems are unresolved. Rushing through disconnection and website blocking would be undemocratic and an abuse of Parliamentary power; it would show contempt for back benchers and be a serious blow for the legitimacy of the legislation.

Clauses 4-10 do offer serious protection of rights holder interests, especially through ISP monitoring, letter writing and encouragement to rights holders to take serious infringers to court. So controversial parts can go without danger to the content industry.

Government ministers are proposing to remove that debate and parliamentary accountability. The likelihood is that ministers will try to prevent parliamentary debate from happening, in order for the Bill to pass with the disconnection clauses intact.

If the executive gets its way, whatever gets passed into the Bill will be agreed behind closed doors in wash up.

MPs can choose to follow the example of the thousands of people who are now emailing MPs from 38 Degrees’ site to demand a debate.

State of the Bill

Disconnection proposals

These are somewhat improved, but still stand in total contrast with our attitude to other vital services. Water is illegal to cut off. Gas and electricity are almost never cut off – tending to be metered if non-payment occurs.

Unlike telephones, the internet is a much more wide-ranging service for those who rely on it. It encompasses work, leisure, education activities, and is a very serious political tool. For many, it is not a luxury, but a vital part of their life upon which they depend.

Disconnection is also an indiscriminate punishment, that would deny every member of a household these opportunities.

Disconnection, or ‘account suspension’, is of undefined length in the Bill. The assumption is that it could occur after 50 infringements.

The minimum value for a repeat infringer’s activity is thus the value of 50 copyright items. Music tracks on emusic now retail at 35p. The retail value of the offences of a repeat infringer could therefore be as little as £18.

Normally offences like this are punished by fines, which have a limited and measurable impact. The impact of disconnection cannot be measured.

None of these points have been answered in the debate, except to say that suspension isn’t a harsh punishment, which flies in the face of the facts.

Other effects

Libraries, schools, businesses and community centres all face having to go to tribunals to defend themselves against disconnection. Although taking measures to block P2P would now be a defence, they would still have to pay for their own legal representation in order to avoid disconnection. This seems bureaucratic and cumbersome to say the least.

Clause 17-18

We only have indications of the content of clause 17-18. The amendments are likely to be agreed in advance of wash up and placed into the Bill without debate. The likelihood is that Conservatives and Labour will agree some sort of blocking procedure, which could have several side effects:

   1. Encouraging people to encrypt and avoid blocks and expose themselves to much more illegal material, such as viruses and child abuse images
   2. Allow blocking requests to be made maliciously, or to suppress comment, much as happens with libel law today
   3.  If the correct balance is not created, such blocks could be requested to act against competitors

This is a difficult and complicated problem to solve. It is deeply inappropriate to try to solve this without a proper consultation