Page last updated at 08:56 GMT, Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Protests grow over digital bill

Screengrab of Number 10 website, BBC
A petition against the bill has 11,000 signatures

The Digital Economy bill has sparked a wave of protest among consumers and rights groups.

Soon after the bill began its journey through Parliament on 19 November, many expressed worries about parts of it.

The bill suggests the use of technical measures to tackle illegal file-sharing that could involve suspending the accounts of persistent pirates.

Critics fear this and other powers the bill reserves could damage the UK's growing digital economy.

The Digital Economy Bill is the end result of the consultation and research that went into the creation of the Digital Britain report that was published in June 2009.

As well as trying to tackle illegal file-sharing, the wide-ranging legislation also proposes a shake-up of the radio spectrum and a classification system for video games.

Left out is the proposal for a broadband tax to fund next-generation broadband that will be handled in the Finance Bill due in early 2010.

The proposals on file-sharing have garnered most criticism.

One of the first responses was the creation of a petition on the Number10.gov.uk website. Set up by Andrew Heaney, TalkTalk's head of strategy and development, it calls for the abolition of the proposal to disconnect illegal filesharers.

By 24 November, the petition had gathered more than 16,000 signatures.

The number of signatures got a boost from Stephen Fry who used micro-blogging site Twitter to direct people to it.

Mr Fry wrote: "Dear Mandy, splendid fellow in many ways, but he is SO WRONG about copyright. Please sign and RT {retweet]".

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, which campaigns on digital issues, said: "It's quite a shocking bill. We're extremely worried about it."

Mr Killock said Section 17 of the Bill was worrying because it gave the Secretary of State "reserve powers" to draft fresh laws to tackle net-based copyright infringement without needing parliamentary approval.

"It could destabilise business and destabilise innovation," said Mr Killock. "It means entirely trusting to bureaucrats and politicians to get it right."

Mr Killock said membership of the Open Rights Group had jumped by 20% in the run-up to the publication of the Bill. He said protests were being co-ordinated in many places such as Facebook and other social media sites.

He predicted that the protests would soon lead to some form of civil unrest, be that lobbying, a protest march or public meetings.

DIGITAL ECONOMY BILL
Legal framework for tackling copyright infringement via education and technical measure
Oftcom given powers to appoint and fund independently funded news consortia
New duties for Ofcom to assess the UK's communications infrastructure every two years
Modernising spectrum to increase investment in mobile broadband
Framework for the move to digital radio switchover by 2015
Updating Channel 4 functions to encompass public service content, on TV and online
Age ratings compulsory for all boxed video games for those over 12 years

US digital rights group The Electronic Frontier Foundation declared that giving the Secretary of State such powers amounted to the creation of a "pirate finder general" that could enact "draconian" copyright enforcement controls.

The Bill envisages that any proposed change to copyright law should be opened up to public comment before it is made.

In a bid to defuse some of the criticisms, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills created a webpage entitled: "Filesharing: some accusations and some answers".

It pointed out that some of the criticisms levelled at the Bill were unfounded. It said it had not been drafted at the behest of the music industries.

It added that "technical measures" to slow down or suspend net connections would not be imposed without those accused going through a tribunal system that assesses their case.

The Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) also issued a statement saying that it "strongly opposes" the measures introduced to tackle file-sharing.

It said: "Rather than focusing blindly on enforcement, the government should be asking rights holders to reform the licensing framework so that legal content can be distributed online to consumers in a way that they are clearly demanding."

Law firm Eversheds said the copyright plans seemed "hurriedly put together and not clearly thought-through" and warned that they could have "unforeseen effects."

It added: "Critics... may have taken some comfort from the fact that the proposals have yet to wend their way through an already congested legislative timetable before the next election, meaning it is questionable whether they will ever become law."



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