Lib Dems call for halt to copyright crackdown

The party has adopted a policy paper that calls for partial repeal of the Digital Economy Act, to get rid of powers to block websites and suspend people's accounts if suspected of copyright infringement
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

The Liberal Democrat party has pledged to repeal parts of the Digital Economy Act, after adopting a policy to strike out its copyright enforcement and website-blocking measures.

Julian Huppert MP

The Lib Dems' pledge to repeal parts of the Digital Economy Act has been welcomed by MP Julian Huppert (pictured), chair of the party's Information Technology Policy Working Group. Photo credit: Institute of Physics/Flickr

On Monday, delegates to the Lib Dems' autumn conference adopted the party's wide-ranging Preparing the Ground: Stimulating Growth in the Digital Economy (PDF) technology policy document. The paper proposed two options for pulling back on the copyright crackdown provisions in the Digital Economy Act, and party members chose the more far-reaching of the two.

"Tackling piracy is important, but it shouldn't be seen as an end in itself," Julian Huppert, the MP who chairs the Lib Dems' Information Technology Policy Working Group, said in a statement. "It's more important to create conditions that reward innovation and talent, and ensure that creators get the benefits of their work.

"The Digital Economy Act fails to do that," Huppert added. "Worse, it sorely lacks a convincing evidence base and real democratic legitimacy. I am delighted that conference has passed this motion calling for the damaging parts of the act to be repealed, and suggesting new ways for the digital economy to grow."

The delegates rejected the weaker option in the paper, Option B, which calls for repeal only of sections 17 and 18 of the act. These sections, which deal with blocking sites used for copyright infringement, were introduced by the Lib Dems themselves to the legislation. However, the governing coalition has already said it will not use the site-blocking powers the act gave it.

Option B also recommended that sections 9 to 16 "should not be commenced until the government can demonstrate that the measures would be necessary and effective, and assent had been given through a vote of both Houses". These provisions make it possible to force ISPs to suspend web access for infringers after repeated violations.

Option A

In the event, the Lib Dem rank and file went for Option A, which calls for an outright repeal of sections 3 to 18. These sections encompass not only site-blocking and account suspension, but also the obligation on ISPs to police their networks for copyright infringement and hand over user details to rights holders.

Option A referred to the existing legislation as "a deeply flawed and unworkable act which stands only as the main emblem of a misguided, outdated and negative approach".

The conference also backed the policy of setting up an independent review of the "true impact" of file-sharing on the creative industries.

"In the evidence we have heard from witnesses, it has been clear throughout that arguments are being made, on all sides of the debate, from an insufficient evidence base," the paper states, echoing the view of copyright reform author Ian Hargreaves.

"What is needed is a more detailed analysis of the relationship between piracy and the creative industries; there have even been some studies which suggested that file-sharing may result in increased sales in certain circumstances," it said.

The newly-adopted Lib Dem policies do not automatically become government policies despite the party's participation in the coalition.

"It will now be taken back to Westminster where it will guide our ministers and parliamentarians in their dealings with the Conservatives when the opportunity arises," a spokesman from the Lib Dem office told ZDNet UK.

Net neutrality

The policy paper also touched on the issue of net neutrality, saying the government has taken an "ambiguous line" on the topic. It pointed to Ed Vaizey's speech in November, when the communications minister said the government favoured a light touch on regulating net neutrality.

The Digital Economy Act sorely lacks a convincing evidence base and real democratic legitimacy.
– Julian Huppert, MP

This speech "was interpreted by one side as signalling open season on traffic management, and by the other as a reiteration of the importance of neutrality", the paper said.

"We do not consider it liberal to allow competition on the basis of existing service providers offering different packages based on traffic management that favours one company over another. Instead, it is better to provide a level playing field — where traffic flows at the same speed, whatever the content and whoever owns and operates the website," it added.

In an echo of Vaizey's speech, however, it went on to suggest there is no urgent need for net neutrality regulation yet. Instead, it argued that regulation will be introduced once there is demonstrable "privileging" of certain types of content or of "throttling download speeds on certain websites".

The Lib Dem policy paper also called for the Communications Act 2003 to be amended, so that people cannot be prosecuted for making jokes online that can be read as threats. This is what happened to Paul Chambers, who is still appealing a court decision that his facetious threat to blow up Robin Hood Airport was a genuine statement of intent.

In addition, the policy pledges to reform of online libel laws so that content can only be taken down when it is proven to be libellous, and not just alleged to be defamatory.

It also urged caution about the introduction of electronic voting and about the transition of public-sector services to the cloud. Other sections reiterated existing party policy about introducing universal broadband access, supporting tech start-ups and backing open standards in public-sector procurement. A new government department should be created to oversee official IT procurement, the paper added.

Other measures it backed include free Wi-Fi in city centres, raising the fines that can be applied for data-protection violations, and educating young people about privacy rights.

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