The Digital Economy Bill has been passed to the final stage before becoming law, after a minor debate in which only a handful of the country's 646 MPs turned up.
In a near-empty House of Commons yesterday, the bill was passed through to the 'wash-up' phase where legislation is rushed through before an election. It will go to a House of Lords debate this afternoon.
Industry insiders said it was highly likely, but not definite, that the Lords would pass the bill into law – though some sections may attract lengthy discussion.
Months of heated campaigning and debate had taken place between those for and against the bill, as well as hundreds of phone calls being made to local MPs. Petitions with thousands of signatures against the bill had been presented to the Commons, and tens of thousands of pounds was spent by campaigners on large newspaper advertisements. But under 40 MPs turned up to yesterday’s key Commons debate.
The controversial measures, if they become law, mean users could be cut off if they access pirated content, and websites hosting that content could also be blocked.
The bill has major implications for content creators and internet users. Musicians, writers and film makers have supported the bill, saying copyrighted content needs to be better protected, with serious threats to those who pirate it or download free copies of their work.
But those who oppose it, including the Open Rights Group and broadband provider Talk Talk, say that the fair and democratic access to the internet, by businesses and consumers, is under threat. They also question the onus being put on internet service providers to cut off users.
The lack of MPs who turned up to debate such a heated issue was partly seen as an indication that the bill had become a “done deal”, after the Conservatives last week finally – but reluctantly – threw their weight behind the proposals. The Tories had argued for the inclusion of an amendment, which was added, that it should be possible for ministers to authorise blocking websites that host pirated content. The Liberal Democrats continue to oppose parts of the bill.
In order to push the bill through, the government dropped its proposed 50 pence a month broadband tax, but observers said this would likely be reinstated if Labour wins the general election on 6 May.