Thursday, April 08, 2010

UK: Anger as MPs pass digital bill

In a grandiose display of apathy only a handful of British MPs debated the controversial digital economy bill last night before others joined the session to pass it with 189 votes to 47. The government forced through the controversial digital economy bill with the aid of the Conservative party, attaining a crucial third reading, which means it will obtain royal assent and become law, after just two hours of debate in the Commons [Parliament].

The government was forced to drop clause 43 of the bill, a proposal on orphan works which had been opposed by photographers. They welcomed the news. "The UK government wanted to introduce a law to allow anyone to use your photographs commercially, or in ways you might not like, without asking you first. They have failed," said the site set up to oppose the proposals.

But not everyone is happy with the new bill. Many are concerned that the government will force sites to shutdown or even block access to certain websites in a similar way to that seen in China. In clause 8 of the bill it states, "The Secretary of State may, by regulations, make provision about the granting by a court of a blocking injunction in respect of a location on the internet which the court is satisfied has been, is being or is likely to be used for or in connection with an activity that infringes copyright."

The definition of "a location on the Internet" where copyright violation might have occurred, or might occur in the future, is not clear. However, it could easily be applied to such sites as YouTube, BitTorrent, DailyMotion, WordPress, Blogger, Facebook, Twitter and Google, all sites severely impeded in China.

It is perhaps unlikely that such restrictions will be implemented, but the fact that provisions have been put in place has cause some alarm amongst civil rights activists. The Labour MP John Hemming protested that the clause could mean the blocking of the whistleblower site Wikileaks, which carries only copyrighted work. Stephen Timms for the government said that it would not want to see the clause used to restrict freedom of speech. However, he gave no assurance that sites like Wikileaks would not be blocked.

Don Foster, the Liberal Democrats' spokesman for culture, media and sport, protested that the clause was too wide-ranging. "It could apply to Google," he complained, adding that its inclusion of the phrase about "likely to be used" meant that a site could be blocked on its assumed intentions rather than its actions. The Lib Dem opposition to that amendment prompted the first vote, known as a division, on the bill. But the Labour and Conservative whips pushed it through, winning it by 197 votes to 40. The next 42 clauses of the bill were then considered in only five minutes.

Numerous MPs complained that the bill was too important and its ramifications too great for it to be pushed through in this "wash-up" period in which bills are not given the usual detailed examination. However the government declined to yield. 

But some Twitter users are not yielding. Many say they they will ignore the Digital Economy Bill. A petition, orchestrated from, has already collected over 1,600 'signatures', in the form of automatically collected Twitter usernames. Rebellious Internet users can register their 'vote' by tweeting: "I choose not to recognise the UK's Digital Economy Bill" along with the hash-tag #whatdebill.

There have also been raised voices from at least one Internet service provider. TalkTalk's director of strategy, Andrew Heaney has been the bill's most vehement critic, vowing to fight it in the courts if his firm is told to throw its users off the Internet. He had vowed to fight the legislation until significant amendments were made and urged customers in the UK to "continue to make their voices heard" despite the apparent setback yesterday. "We restate our pledges to our customers. Unless we are served with a court order we will not surrender your details to rightsholders – we are the only major ISP to have taken this stance and we will maintain it. We will continue to fight this draconian legislation as it makes its way through Parliament. And if we are instructed to disconnect your account due to alleged copyright infringement we will refuse to do so and tell the rightsholders we'll see them in court."

Heaney welcomed a number of concessions on the wording of the bill which means that before disconnection could come into force there will be a 12-month gap, and that there will be more scrutiny from MPs in the next Parliament before web blocking is allowed to happen.

The microblogging site has also been buzzing with commentary centred on the fact that so few MPs bothered to show up to the Commons to debate it. A website called attempts to let users find out if their own MP actually attended the session. The registrant of is said to have hidden behind a privacy proxy, interesting in itself. If the new bill asserts widespread blocks as some fear, a proxy or Virtual Private Network based outside the UK may be required as is often the case in China.

The bill does have its supporters however, particularly in the music and film industry who say they are losing millions through copyright infringement.Universal Music's Lucian Grainge is one hardened advocate of the bill. Grainge, who passionately believes that piracy costs Britain's creative industries more than £1bn a year and could decimate the music industry, personally convinced Lord Mandelson that tougher measures were necessary. The lifelong music executive, who moves to New York shortly to take the top job at Universal, was part of a committee that included Sky's Jeremy Darroch, Channel 4's Andy Duncan, the Premier League's Richard Scudamore and Virgin Media's Neil Berkett. Grainge is adamant that illegal filesharing needs to be dealt with unless the UK wants to end up like Sweden where Universal and others have stopped investing in new talent [Guardian / CityAM / Telegraph blog / Telegraph / BBC]

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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