The Digital Economy Bill

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? It is faster than a speeding bullet but it’s not Superman, it’s the Digital Economy Bill. The piece of legislation which many believe will bring about the end to online freedom in Britain.

It has been established that the internet needs to be regulated, so the Government has quickly put together the UK’s first real attempt to exercise control. To have their technological ambitions realised, before the general election, they worked towards pushing the Digital Economy Bill through both parliaments at supersonic speed. It sounds like a fairy tale but it definitely isn’t.

The main issue on the bill is copyright infringement. Ofcom has been given the task to oversee the web, expanding on their current responsibility of TV and radio. They’ve also been given the power to punish internet service providers (ISP) with fines of up to £250,000 if appropriate action isn’t being taken against persistent offenders of internet piracy. Most importantly, the government has ordered ISPs to implement a ‘three strikes’ rule with users who illegally file share.

It all sounds fairly straightforward  but the bill has met great opposition, not just from those with an intellectual property free for all mentality or copyfighters, but also from large institutions such as universities and libraries with large user networks. The belief is that the new ‘three strikes’ system will lead to the many being punished for the actions of the very few, leaving legitimate web users without access to something which is now seen by most as a basic human right.

Representatives from the British Library, the University of London and the Imperial War Museum wrote a letter to the government last month expressing their concerns with the legislation. They wrote, “Because public institutions often provide internet access to hundreds or thousands of individual users, the complexity of our position in relation to copyright infringements must be taken into consideration.” They later went on to say that the bill could cut 15 million citizens who do not have the internet without online access.

Also in opposition to the bill, the British Hospitality Association say, that this could be detrimental to hoteliers right across the UK. Deputy Chief Executive Martin Couchman, believes that the difficulties of applying the bill to the hospitality industry ‘appear to not have been considered’ and once again that others may suffer because of the actions of one guest.

Even ISPs have made their feelings known publicly. Andrew Heaney, TalkTalk’s director of strategy and regulation, wrote on his blog, “This is made all the more appalling by the ability of big music and film companies to influence government and the absence of any proper debate or scrutiny by MPs. Only 5% of MPs turned up for the brief debate yesterday and the other important parliamentary stages will be bypassed.”

Although Heaney is directing his disapproval squarely at a display of minimal parliamentary discussion on an important matter, he has forgotten to mention one very important thing. The new legislation will mean a much greater workload for ISPs, a workload that they possibly may not be able to cope with.

Stuart Mackenzie, an IT consultant, believes that the legislation imposes responsibilities service providers do not have the resources to deal with affectively. “Due to the volume of traffic online it’s very difficult to monitor everything that is downloaded so ISPs will have to go on the assumption that users who download a lot of data may be doing something illegal. Effectively meaning that, if you’re not downloading a lot, you could probably still get away with it.”

Which now prompts another important question the Digital Economy Bill’s opposition has raised, what about users right to privacy? “Once again the amount of data being downloaded will raise red flags so at this point the ISP will take a look at where the data is coming from. Saying that, without actually looking at the files they can’t determine whether it’s illegal or not so they would indeed need to take that final step to establish whether good or bad data is being downloaded” Stuart explains.

Although the legislation is generally preoccupied with ways to stop copyright infringement, it does also look at different areas of the media. Channel 4’s remit will be rewritten and extended to  include online activities as well as its original requirement to make innovative television content for minority groups. Children and teenagers have also been given a priority. Claims the broadcaster’s output for young people just isn’t up to scratch have prompted the government to step in. Video games will no longer be regulated by British Board of Film Classification but will now be the responsibility of the Video Standards Council. This is more for reasons of work redistribution as the current ratings system will more than likely remain the same.

Another interesting area that was originally included but then excluded following Conservative opposition, was the idea to replace regional bulletins on ITV1 with local news supplied by independently financed news consortiums. For now this will not be an ambition achieved.

So all that is left to do now is wait and see. If the Digital Economy Bill does fail, the blame will be placed firmly at the feet of Gordon Brown, giving the Tory government the perfect opportunity to play the blame game, if current polling positions are proven to be correct.

Words by Niall Lennon

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