Lib Dems to oppose Mandelson copyright powers

Summary:The party has come out against giving the business secretary the power to change existing law, while Tory peers want to amend other parts of the Digital Economy Bill

The Liberal Democrats are to oppose a clause in the Digital Economy Bill that would let the business secretary amend copyright law without parliamentary debate.

Clause 17 of the bill, introduced on 20 November, gives the business secretary — at present, Lord Mandelson — the power to respond to new file-sharing technology by changing the Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988 as he sees fit. In amendments published on Friday, Lord Razzall and Lord Clement-Jones gave notice of their intention to oppose the clause.

"We just don't think that the government should have the power to fiddle around with copyright law by order rather than by primary legislation," Clement-Jones, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for culture, media and sport, told ZDNet UK on Tuesday. "Technology moves fast, fine, they can put in bills at short notice."

The second reading of the bill in the House of Lords on Wednesday 2 December prompted numerous proposed amendments, but Clause 17 was the only copyright-related clause to meet with firm rejection from a party.

Clement-Jones said Clause 17 was "a completely unsatisfactory way of doing legislation", adding that opposition to the clause was "the official line" of the Liberal Democrats. He also said that the party's lords will table "quite a few" further amendments to the bill before the House of Lords breaks up on 16 December.

"This is only the beginning, really," Clement-Jones said. "We're unhappy with quite a lot of other things."

The Digital Economy Bill has met with opposition from various sources, ranging from web giants such as Google and Yahoo to consumer rights groups and ISPs. Most of this dissent has focused on the copyright enforcement aspects of the bill, but the legislation has also sparked debate over its sections on game classification and the UK broadcast industry.

Peers from the opposition parties on Friday proposed a number of changes to all parts of the bill, including amendments to those clauses dealing with copyright enforcement.

The Liberal Democrats are not opposed in principle to technical measures such as disconnection, but they believe such measures should be introduced only after "considerable hoops" have been jumped through, Clement-Jones said.

"Each technical measure needs to have an impact assessment and needs to have an Ofcom report showing there is no other way of cutting back on copyright infringement by subscribers," Clement-Jones said.

"[Rights holders need to] demonstrate that it is that subscriber who has infringed. We want the burden of proof to be on the rights holders. In principle, we're not against technical measures because we believe that, in order to encourage innovation and creativity, we need to protect copyright," he added.

The two Liberal Democrat lords have also proposed changes to the text of the bill, as have Tory peers Lord Howard of Rising and Lord de Mauley. The proposed amendments acknowledge that third parties, rather than subscribers, may be responsible for copyright infringements. In addition, the amendments limit the business secretary's powers to impose technical measures, such as disconnection of broadband service, at his own discretion.

The two Tory peers have tabled amendments to Clause 4 of the bill, which concerns the sending of notifications to people suspected of unlawful file-sharing. One amendment calls for recognition of the possibility that "a third party other than the subscriber" is responsible for the infringement.

Another amendment from the Tory peers concerns Clause 5, which calls for the rights holder to send an infringement report...

Topics: Government : UK, Networking


David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't be paying many bills. His early journalistic career was spent in general news, working behind the scenes for BBC radio and on-air as a newsreader for independent stations. David's main focus is on communications, of both... Full Bio

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