United Against the Digital Economy Bill


As readers of this blog will be well aware, the UK's Digital Economy Bill is currently grinding its way through Parliament.

At the moment, it's the Lords that are trying to knock some sense into its senseless provisions; later it will go to the Commons, where there's probably less chance of things being improved, given the current distribution of the parties there.

Meanwhile, various groups are coming together in an attempt to rouse the British public from its slumbers on this hugely-important issue.

This morning, I went along to an interesting get-together of a motley crew of such groups. The event was organised by the ISP TalkTalk, which is leading the fight against the Bill's nuttier provisions. For example, earlier, it set up the site Don't Disconnect Us. Its line at today's meeting, at least according to the press release, was as follows:

Digital Economy Bill Cannot Protect Copyright

'Robin Hood' Developers will neuter bill with new applications and tools

The Digital Economy Bill will have precisely the opposite of its desired effect. The Bill will ignite the development of tools and make it even easier to access music, films and other copyright-protected material for free and undetected, defeating any attempt to protect copyright.

That's certainly consistent with what has happened throughout the short history of this field. For example, had the record companies come to an agreement with Napster, we probably wouldn't have seen the take-off of decentralised P2P systems. I'm not sure this is the best line to take, though, since it would seem to support the Digital Economy Bill's plans to give the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills unlimited powers to update the legislation to cope with just such an eventuality.

Fortunately, rather stronger arguments were also on offer at the meeting. These came from a wide range of non-technical consumer groups, who are starting get (a) worried and (b) active in this area.

As you might expect there was that stalwart of digital freedom, the Open Rights Group, but there was also Liberty (The National Council for Civil Liberties), concerned about things like freedom of speech – after all, it's hard to exercise this if you have been cut off from the Internet. More generally, Liberty sees two big problems with the general approach the Government is adopting:

In creating such an order-making power the Government is proposing that in dealing with suspected copyright infringement (or indeed as we outline below in dealing with any particular type of internet use) ordinary criminal or civil procedures will be bypassed instead with an administrative process laden with executive involvement and devoid in the first instance of due process safeguards. This proposal continues two disturbing trends enthusiastically adopted by this Government over recent years.

The first is the attempt to sidestep traditional criminal or civil law standards and procedures in favour of administrative systems controlled by the executive which undermine rights and erode procedural fairness. At its very worst this corrosive model has allowed for indefinite house arrest for those suspected of involvement in terrorism under the control order regime. The second trend is the penchant for leaving that which should be properly dealt with on the face of primary legislation to secondary legislation in the form of regulations or Orders which do not attract sufficient levels of parliamentary scrutiny.

Alongside these groups concerned about the fundamental principles involved, there were two consumer organisations, Which? and Consumer Focus, that are looking at things much more practically. Which? became involved because increasing numbers of its members were asking it what to do about “threatening letters demanding large payments to settle a claim against them for illegal file sharing”. As the organisation's handout puts it:

Which? Does not condone unlawful file sharing. However, we are concerned that under the government's new “Digital Britain” proposals for dealing with illegal filesharers, consumers will have to pay for a new system that will be neither fair nor effective, and that will allow this appalling practice to continue.”

Which? responded by offering advice to its members, including a standard letter to be returned to the law firms sending the threatening demands. Ironically, these letters were rejected because they were in this standard format – a totally hypocritical response when you consider that the threatening letters themselves were written using just such a standard format and were clearly sent out en masse (tens of thousands seems to be the best estimate at the moment.)

The final group that I spoke to at the meeting was Consumer Focus:

Consumer Focus is the statutory organisation campaigning for a fair deal for consumers in England, Wales, Scotland, and, for postal services, Northern Ireland.

We are well-resourced to use these powers and campaign on the issues that matter most to consumers. In fact, with 170 staff, we’re the largest and the best-resourced advocacy body in the history of the UK consumer movement.

As with the other organisations mentioned above, these are splendid allies to have in the fight against the excesses of the Digital Economy Bill, because they are focussed entirely on consumer issues. For them, this is not so much about the technical unworkabilities of the Bill as the negative impact it will have on ordinary consumers in their everyday lives.

Despite the Juggernaut-like progress through Parliament of this bad Bill, I was heartened to learn at this meeting that opposition is growing across a wide spectrum of interests. With these groups working together, there is some hope that ordinary people will start to realise how this ill-conceived legislation, aiming to prop up failing business models of the recording industry that refuses to change with the digital times, threatens to affect adversely not just their own lives, but even more worryingly those of their children. Under it, the latter may be branded as “thieves” and cut off from perhaps the single most important medium of the early 21st century, purely on the fallible and self-interested say-so of companies too lazy to innovate, but with irremediable damage to the young people's prospects and careers.

For that reason, I urge you to use the indispensable WriteToThem to contact your MP and express your concern about the legislation in its present form, and to ask them to support amendments that bring some sanity and justice to the Bill. If you want some ideas on the kind of things you might mention, I recommend the Open Rights Group's briefing on the Digital Economy Bill, which offers a succinct and yet commendably complete discussion of the many flaws in this shoddy and shameful piece of law-making.

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