The last month has been a bit of an emotional roller coaster ride for broadband users, ISPs and anyone interested in basic liberties in the UK.
On Friday 19th March The Digital Economy Bill passed from the House of Lords to the Commons. The three readings in the Lords took most of the three months since Christmas. The Commons only spent a few days “deliberating” the Bill. The General Election and “wash-up” process meant that the Bill was effectively nodded through by the Labour and Conservatives.
This is the only time I have ever watched parliament online. I don’t know how many people were viewing the proceedings but there was an active twitter feed of comments on #debill. What totally amazed me, and I realise that this is probably down to naivety, was that you could almost count the number of MPs in the Chamber of the House on two hands.
For the final vote a number of MPs piled out of the bars into the lobby and then went into the chamber to view the knifing. The Digital Economy Bill was passed with a majority of 189 – 47 in favour. The number of votes in favour sounds remarkably close to the number of MPs standing down at the Election. Don’t forget why now – the expenses scandal!? I’m sure it must just be coincidence though it is not hard to understand why some MPs might want to hang around Parliament (and its numerous bars) taking a few last wistful looks.
The Bill had flown through the Commons, the committee stage lasting as long as it took one MP to stand up and say that it had “been through committee”. Five seconds maybe. It actually took 2 hours but it might just as well have been 5 seconds.
Her Majesty the Queen gave her Royal Assent on 8th April. Her nod probably took longer than some of the debate in the House of Commons
I was outraged. Is this our democracy in action I thought to myself. Adam Afridi, the Conservative Front Bench spokesman for the debate was interested only in scoring political points. Digital Britain Minister Stephen Timms, who led the charge for the Government, was simply doing what he had been told from above and I thought looked a bit awkward. Didn’t mean he was in the right though. The Lib Dems took a pro-democracy stance but it was a bit like King Canute trying to push back the sea.
At the death I am told that Feargal Sharkey, CEO of UK Music, was in the Commons to watch the vote. In my mind I see him slipping quietly away behind a curtain, expressionless face, knife twisted, job done.
So now we are stuck, for the moment, with a bad Law that has been rushed through Parliament. It doesn’t finish here. In fact this is just the End of the Beginning as Winston Churchill would have said.
Telecoms regulator Ofcom now has to draw up a Code of Practice outlining how the Bill will be implemented. This process will start once the new parliament is sitting. End of May say. The work on the CoP should notionally take six months, with inputs from all stakeholders, ie mostly the Rights-Holder and ISP industries but also with Human Rights organisations such as the Open Rights Group also being involved.
Seeing as ISPs and Rights Holders have failed to agree on a self regulated CoP over the last two years it seems highly unlikely that the OFCOM version will be satisfactory. The CoP will in the main I’m sure dictate the writing of letters by ISPs to “alleged” copyright infringers using increasingly louder font if the letters a fail to have any effect.
The period of drawing up the CoP is also meant to allow some due diligence to check that UK plc is not breaking any EU law. For example the Technical Measures in the Bill include blocking websites that either are seen to be promoting “illegal” downloading or even, wait for it, have the potential to do so!. These could well be sailing close to the wind as far as EU law goes, though you would think that the Government would have checked on this first wouldn’t you?
Once the CoP is in place there is then a period of one year where we look to see if the letter writing has taken any effect. It will be important for Ofcom to determine how this is measured. There isn’t as far as I can see an easy way other than using data provided by the Rights holders themselves, which doesn’t sound quite right but nothing to do with this Bill has so far sounded quite right.
It is only after this year is over, realistically by the start of 2012, that we start talking about Technical Measures, or cutting off broadband connections and blocking websites, and that after subsequent secondary legislation to specify and agree on the measures.
Still a long time away, though remember were are talking internet time here. It will be over in the blink of an eyelid.
And lets not forget why we all object to this Law. The Digital Economy Bill attempts to protect the rights of private business by stopping Online Copyright “theft”.
- It is based on a lack of understanding of how the internet works.
- It takes no note of the fact that in countries such as France and Sweden where similar laws have also been passed, the amount of “illegal downloading” has grown the legislation was introduced.
- It fails to recognise that all this work could be useless because there are ways that “downloaders” can do so without detection
- It fails to understand that consumers could easily be the subject of wrongful accusations of law breaking because their wifi connections have been hacked – regardless of whether there is a security key involved. Hacking is not difficult. Some older routers will likely not even support the latest encryption techniques – so does Mrs Bloggs has to buy a new router? In fact would you, if you were that way inclined, be stupid enough to use your own internet connection?
- It shrugs off the notion that internet cafes, coffee shops offering free wifi, hotels, caravan sites, public hotspot services, subscribers to BT FON, University Campuses etc etc could all have their connections closed.
- It makes no effort to facilitate a change in business models so that music is freely and legally available online at a sensible price. For example changing the copyright licensing laws so that Content Providers don’t have 44 difference licensing agreements to negotiate.
It is all one way traffic.
This doesn’t mean it is all a done deal although it is made that much more absurd by the news circulating this week to the effect that the BPI (British Phonographic Industry as was) PR front man Adam Liversage was allegedly found advising his wife via twitter to photocopy a card and reprint it – copyright infringement?
There will be a new Government after the General Election. If this new Government disagrees with what has been done wrt the Digital Economy Bill then it can change it. I don’t really want to take a party political line here but the Liberal Democrats were the only party vociferous in their opposition to the Bill and have now said that they would repeal it if they got to power.
With the strong potential for a hung Parliament having the Lib Dems in a position to influence a coalition Government could be highly advantageous. I’m sure that voters will not determine their choice of party based on their approach to this issue is not going to but it might be a contributing factor.
You can very easily contact your prospective MPs via the 38 Degrees website.
I have sent all the candidates in my hometown of Lincoln an email asking for them to pledge to support more open lobbying – we might not have got into this mess in the first place if it could be seen how much wining and dining had been going on with music industry lobbyists. The same web page also allows you to ask for specific support against the Digital Economy Bill.
Also check out Open Rights Group here. Good luck.