UK web users face tougher penalties for unlawful file-sharing, after MPs approved the Digital Economy Bill on Wednesday night.
The bill, which outlines a new copyright enforcement regime, is set to become law after being passed through the Commons by a vote of 189 to 47. The third reading vote followed a few hours of debate. The complex bundle of legislation would ordinarily have gone through weeks of scrutiny in the Commons, but Tuesday's announcement of the general election triggered a period of accelerated law-making known as the 'wash-up'.
Although 236 MPs participated in the final vote on Wednesday night, most of them only entered the chamber for the vote itself. The preceding debate was sparsely attended, with the majority of those present during the discussion opposing the bill.
One of the MPs to speak out against the legislation was Conservative backbencher Bill Cash, who drew a comparison between the new law and much earlier attempts to crack down on copyright infringement.
"Even in the 16th century, there was an attempt to track down people who set up secret presses; it made no difference," Cash said. "Although the attempt to prevent what is regarded as an illegal use of technology is understandable to achieve certain objectives, it seems to me that, underneath that, there is an attempt to stem a tsunami. The number of people who have connected with their MP, with the public at large, on radio and on television, represent a significant core — perhaps even a significantly vast range — of people who simply are not prepared to accept the restrictions that the bill suggests should be imposed on them."
Cash voted against the bill, becoming one of several MPs to defy the wishes of the Conservative and Labour whips. Another opponent, Labour MP Tom Watson, tweeted from the Commons that Wednesday marked the first time he had ever broken the whip in the chamber. "I feel physically sick," he wrote.
The precise nature of the penalties introduced by the legislation, which could include measures such as bandwidth throttling and account suspension, will have to be worked out by the telecoms regulator Ofcom. It will begin by sending warning letters to suspected infringers. After a year's trial, the business secretary will decide whether the letters have sufficiently reduced file-sharing. If he or she decides to impose new sanctions, parliamentarians in both houses will first have to approve the new measures.
The government has refused to provide liability exemptions for entities that provide open internet access as part of their business or as a public service. This has led many to predict the death of open Wi-Fi in the UK and an end to web access offered by small businesses, pubs and internet cafes.
The bill will go back to the House of Lords on Thursday afternoon, so that peers can approve the amendments that were passed on Wednesday.
One of the amendments approved by the Commons removed clause 43, which would have made it possible anyone to freely use works that have no identifiable copyright-holder. Photographers had complained that the clause would allow businesses to make money using images from sites such as Flickr without paying the person who took it.
The lords will also look at an amendment that allows rights holders to force ISPs to block access to websites that unlawfully host or give access to copyrighted material. Critics of this new law have pointed out that its wording is wide enough to ban any website, P2P service or search engine.
Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming pointed out in the Commons debate that the website-blocking law could be used to stop UK citizens from being able to view freedom-of-information sites such as Wikileaks. He raised the example of the US Air Force video published by Wikileaks on the weekend, which appeared to show the US military killing unarmed Iraqi civilians.
"Copyright exists with the US government, who under the bill could — and would want to — apply to ban Wikileaks from the UK," Hemming said. "That provision is clearly in the bill." He also noted that websites reporting on freedom of information requests could be banned, as the answers extracted from local authorities through such requests are usually copyrighted.
The website-blocking regulations will have to be approved by both Houses of Parliament before they can be enforced — a measure known as the 'super-affirmative procedure'.
Jim Killock, chief of the Open Rights Group, said the passing of the bill showed that politicians were out of touch. "This is an utter disgrace. This is an attack on everyone's right to communicate, work and gain an education," said Killock in a statement.
The digital rights activist group will launch a campaign on the Digital Economy Bill during the run up to the general election, he added. "There now thousands of activists working with ORG planning to show up in hustings, demand answers from candidates, and who are willing to punish those who voted for this at the ballot box," Killock said.