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Cheat Sheet: The Digital Economy Bill

The hugely controversial file-sharer-bashing legislation speeding its way through Parliament
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Written by Natasha Lomas on

The hugely controversial file-sharer-bashing legislation speeding its way through Parliament

Digital Economy Bill - sounds like a bit of a mouthful. Some kind of new government idea I presume?
Indeed. Known as DEB for short or #Debill in Twitter-speak, this particular slice of tech-related policy grew out of the government's Digital Britain whitepaper - its vision for the UK's tech future, published last year.

I've heard of that. Isn't that about making sure everyone gets access to broadband?
Boosting broadband and digital inclusion - getting internet refuseniks online - were both a big part of Digital Britain.

But the report had something else sandwiched between its pages: a determination to tackle online copyright infringement committed by illegal file-sharers. Necessary, according to the report's author Lord Stephen Carter, in order to protect the UK's creative industries from the revenue-draining activities of online pirates. So tackling piracy is a key - but contentious - plank of DEB.

What does the Digital Economy Bill propose to do to tackle piracy?
Clauses four through 17 of DEB detail measures to tackle illegal downloads - including stipulations that ISPs collect anonymous data on copyright infringements committed by their subscribers. This information, if requested, must then be passed onto copyright holders. ISPs must also inform subscribers by letter that they are suspected of illegal download activity.

The data that ISPs gather can also be used by the copyright owners to instigate legal proceedings against infringers.

DEB also gives telecoms regulator Ofcom new powers to direct ISPs to act against persistent pirates via so-called "technical measures" - such as limiting the speed and capacity of infringers' internet connections, and even suspending their access altogether.

Digital Economy Bill: Cutting off internet access

Persistent downloaders face having their internet disconnected in future
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Cutting off internet access sounds pretty controversial - not to mention retrograde...
Indeed. There have been a lot of voices raised in opposition to DEB - from everyday web users to Labour politicians such as Tom Watson.

Opponents of the Bill have also warned it could force businesses and institutions running open wi-fi networks such as libraries, universities, cafes and hotels to shutter them to avoid penalties from infringements committed by their users.

There has also been opposition to measures in the Bill enabling the government to force ISPs to block access to websites hosting copyrighted material - which could lead to open data access sites such as Wikileaks being shut down.

But by far the biggest controversy surrounding DEB is how the Bill has been railroaded through Parliament in the dying days before it's dissolved ahead of the general election, a period known as the 'wash up'. The complaint here is that there has been no time for proper scrutiny of the Bill, as what would typically be weeks of debate have been truncated into hours in the few short days of the wash-up - not adequate treatment for a Bill as lengthy and controversial as DEB. As Tory MP William Cash noted during its second reading: "The Bill should not be rushed through. It is not the Dangerous Dogs Bill; it is a very different type of Bill." Even Labour's Ben Bradshaw, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, conceded: "It is not ideal that the Bill is not likely to enjoy full debate through its Committee stages in the House."

Yet another complaint against the Bill is...

...it's out of step with the government's other big tech push: its Digital Britian pledge to get more people online. Or, as Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn put it during DEB's second reading: "Is it really right to contemplate cutting people off from access to the internet at the same time as the government are spending oodles of money persuading people to get on to the internet and to be accessible?"

So apart from sticks to beat pirates, what else does DEB propose?
There's lots in there - the Bill runs to some 50 clauses. Other portions include furnishing telecoms regulator Ofcom with additional powers in relation to spectrum access - with the aim of extending coverage of next-generation mobile networks to further boost Digital Britain's pro-broadband agenda.

Ofcom will gain the ability to fine spectrum holders for breaching licence conditions, which the government deems to be a more useful tool than its current powers to revoke licences or prosecute offenders. DEB also enables Ofcom to levy periodic payments on spectrum holders to encourage the use of held spectrum (as opposed to 'misuse' - by, for instance, doing nothing with spectrum in order to block a rival's use of it).

Ofcom is also now charged with conducting a biannual audit of the UK's comms infrastructure and reporting its findings to government, keeping the powers that be in Westminster abreast of "significant developments affecting the communications infrastructure".

A planned extension to the regulator's remit to include all "media services", not just TV and radio, along with a provision to promote investment in networks and public service content, was dropped by the government after Conservative Party opposition.

Anything else?
There's a section on extending age-restricted video games and another extending Channel 4's public service remit. The Bill also contains a section enabling library-lending payments rights for e-books and other non-print formats. Oh, and licensing regime modifications to help facilitate the digital radio switchover.

Around domain names, the government will be able to intervene if it suspects "illicit use" of a .co.uk domain - an effort to tackle malicious sites.

There's some other bits and bats too - taking Gaelic programming regulation away from Ofcom for instance.

So has DEB passed into law yet?
Almost. It passed its third reading by 189 to 47 votes after the Conservative Party lent its support to the bulk of the Bill - crucially, the Tories did not oppose the most controversial aspects of it aimed at tackling digital piracy. They did, however, call the Bill "flawed" and pledged to amend any cracked portions of it post-election, assuming they get into power.

It now goes back to the House of Lord for the rubber stamp of final assent before Parliament's dissolution on Monday and then royal assent will see it passed into law. All in all, that's very little time to chew over so much controversy.

Sounds like a right royal mess...
Indeed.

What the government says: "The Digital Economy Bill will drive the UK's vital creative and digital sectors to bolster future growth and jobs."

What the Conservatives say: "We are faced with a weak, dithering and incompetent attempt to breathe life into Britain's digital economy."

What anti-DEB campaigners say: "Technically futile and politically inept."

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