Digital Economy Bill heads for final reading

The bill, which will limit or suspend the internet connections of unlawful file-sharers, has passed a stormy second Commons reading
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

The Digital Economy Bill has passed its second reading in the House of Commons, despite heavy criticism from Labour and Conservative MPs.

About 35 MPs from all parties — roughly five percent of the total number of elected representatives — attended Tuesday evening's debate on the bill, which will put in place a system for limiting or suspending the internet connections of those suspected of unlawful file-sharing.

The second Commons reading of a bill is intended to debate the legislation's principles rather than its precise wording, which is a subject for the committee and third-reading stages. However, this bundle of legislation will now go through truncated committee and third-reading stages on Wednesday before becoming law.

Although these final stages usually take weeks, they are being abbreviated for the 'wash-up' — a period of accelerating law-making in the last few days before parliament dissolves before a general election. Introducing the bill for second reading, culture secretary Ben Bradshaw said it was "not ideal that the bill is not likely to enjoy full debate through its committee stages in the House, but at the end of a parliament there are always bills to which that applies".

Conservative MP John Whittingdale asked Bradshaw to "give an example of a major government bill that generates substantial opposition that has a second reading one day and goes into wash-up for completion the next day". Bradshaw did not give any example of such a bill.

Tom Watson, the Labour MP who has been most vocally opposed to the copyright enforcement elements of the bill, pointed to the 20,000 "extremely upset" people who had emailed their MPs to complain about the bill. Bradshaw replied that those working in the creative sectors "feel just as strongly that they need the legislation now as the people he mentioned think we should not pass it".

Conservative MPs attacked the bill throughout the five-and-a-half-hour debate. Shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt called it "a weak, dithering and incompetent attempt to breathe life into Britain's digital economy", while shadow science and innovation minister Adam Afriyie referred to the bill as "botched legislation".

"We are stating categorically that we reserve the right to review anything that becomes law as a result of the wash-up, if we win the next election, and we will indeed review it, if it turns out that the legislation is flawed," Hunt said. Conservative MP David Davis said in response to this statement that he would not vote for the bill if his party was "taking a chance" on the new laws not working.

Hunt said the Conservatives could not reject the bill in its entirety "because it contains some very important measures". Afriyie later said the party would only oppose clause 1 relating to Ofcom's general duties; clause 29, covering regional and local news; and clause 43, which concerns extended licensing for orphan works.

Only one Liberal Democrat MP — the culture spokesman Don Foster — was present at the debate. He said an amendment should be added to protect universities, libraries and small businesses such as hotels and internet cafes from being liable for the unlawful actions of people using their open Wi-Fi networks.

Labour MP John Grogan praised the Liberal Democrats for insisting that clause 18 — which would make it possible to have ISPs block websites for hosting copyrighted material — be dropped. He acknowledged that the party had proposed the first version of the clause, but said: "There is joy in heaven when a sinner repenteth".

Grogan also said that the government had only decided to crack down on file-sharers after "Lord Mandelson had one of his meetings in Corfu with some people [who] were very prominent in the Hollywood industry".

After the reading, a variety of IT professionals, digital creatives and internet law experts signed an open letter to some of the MPs who had supported the bill during the debate. They criticised the MPs for allowing the bill to go to wash-up even while professing "dismay at the contempt shown for the House, the lack of scrutiny which has been afforded, and [MPs'] deep concerns with respect to certain provisions".

"To the British public who were watching, this was abhorrent," the letter, drafted by web developer Mo McRoberts, stated. "The measures cannot guarantee to be free of serious unintended consequences, nor can they guarantee to not make erroneous accusations, nor do they stand much chance of affecting the habits of the serious, knowledgeable infringer."

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