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On Wednesday evening, protestors gathered outside the Houses of Parliament to complain about the Digital Economy Bill, which is being fast-tracked through the Commons ahead of the general election.
The protest was organised by the Open Rights Group, which is particularly opposed to the provisions in the bill for potentially disconnecting those who are repeatedly accused of unlawful file-sharing. Protestors also decried the speed with which the bill is going through the Commons, with many complaining that the circumstances mean the complex bundle of legislation cannot be properly scrutinised by MPs.
Protestors wore black tape over their mouths and carried black placards, referencing what they viewed as the censorial effects of the Digital Economy Bill.
Open Rights Group chief Jim Killock, pictured here with Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate Bridget Fox, told ZDNet UK he estimated around 250 people showed up for the demonstration.
Asked whether he thought the protest would make a difference, Killock said demonstrations were "part of change".
"I think the more than 13,000 letters sent to MPs [complaining about the bill's fast passage through the Commons] ought to make a difference," Killock said.
Referring to the second Commons reading of the Digital Economy Bill on 6 April — the day when the date of the general election is expected to be announced — Labour MP John Grogan said it was "an absolute insult to our democracy that we will be discussing such a bill in such circumstances".
The MP for Selby said it was "absolutely essential" that the bill be subject to full Commons scrutiny, adding that "the controversial sections of this bill must be dropped for a future parliament".
Tom Watson, the MP for West Bromwich East, told protestors the Digital Economy Bill was one of the most complex he had seen in his nine years in parliament.
He said the fast-tracking of the bill through the Commons would be "nothing short of a constitutional impropriety", and protestors "have to campaign to stop it".
"Whatever your views on copyright reform, it is simply unacceptable that the elected chamber of the House of Commons does not have the time to debate this," Watson said.
The Labour MP also voiced criticism of a provision — which will be replaced or altered by the government — that would lead to website blocking at the request of rights holders. "Blocking websites — they do it in China; we should not be doing it in the United Kingdom," he said.
ZDNet UK later asked Watson whether he thought the protest would make a difference. "It will make it harder for the bill to be bounced through," he replied. "Some MPs are deeply troubled about the fact that this could be bounced through in 90 minutes."
Watson added that the letter-writing campaign against the bill had led many MPs — six on Wednesday alone — to ask him what their constituents were complaining about.
Blogger Cory Doctorow told protestors it would be "vastly disproportionate [to] disconnect entire households because of one person downloading naughty content".
"Even if those [downloaders] happened to be guilty, I think that would be disproportionate," Doctorow said, adding that full scrutiny of the bill would be "our best chance for a free and open society".
ZDNet UK asked Doctorow whether he thought the protest would make a difference. "All of these things make a difference, whether in the short term or the long term," he said, adding that it was "crazy" to have to ask MPs to "show up for work and talk about the law before they pass it".
Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate for the Islington South and Finsbury constituency, said she was "delighted" that her party had, at its recent conference, almost unanimously backed her motion to safeguard internet freedom.
She told protestors: "When we see our freedoms being killed by this government, Liberal Democrats are aggrieved. We are angry, but we will never accept it."
Asked by ZDNet UK whether she believed the protest would have any influence on the government's decision to push the bill through at speed, she said it was "a very good time to focus the attention of MPs as we come up to the election".
Fox added that some aspects of the bill would require secondary legislation, and said she hoped to be a member of parliament when that legislation is debated.
"Even if we have to have a further round of fighting on this after the election, we will get a better outcome," Fox said.