The government intends to create a new offence of downloading copyrighted material without consent, according to reports that refer to a letter sent by business secretary Lord Mandelson to the leader of the House, Harriet Harman.
The news of the proposed statutory amendment to the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act — a technique that would allow the change to be pushed through without debate — came ahead of Friday's publication of the Digital Economy Bill, which is expected to make it possible to disconnect unlawful file-sharers.
The Guardian reported late on Thursday that:
The proposed alteration to the Copyright Act would create a new offence of downloading material that infringes copyright laws, as well as giving new powers or rights to "protect" rights holders such as record companies and movie studios – and, controversially, conferring powers on "any person as may be specified" to help cut down online infringement of copyright.
The changes proposed seem small – but are enormously wideranging, given both the breadth of even minor copyright infringement online, where photographs and text are copied with little regard to ownership, and the complexity of ownership.
On Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow wrote that he had been passed the letter from someone close to the government. He said the changes would allow the secretary of state to unilaterally create jail terms for unlawful file-sharers, and allow rights holders — music companies and film studios, among others — to force ISPs to turn over their customers' personal details.
Both Boing Boing and The Guardian noted that Mandelson was concerned about file transfer sites such as YouSendIt, which are generally used for privately passing large files between users. According to the reports, Mandelson wants such services to be unable to keep transfers private.
ZDNet UK has asked Mandelson's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) for confirmation that the letter has been correctly described in reports, but had received no comment at the time of writing.
Open Rights Group head Jim Killock told ZDNet UK on Thursday that the leaked details "should make people angry".
"We're extremely disturbed by what we're reading and we want clarification as quickly as possible to understand exactly what's being proposed," Killock said. "It's very clear that Mandelson's instincts on how to deal with copyright in the digital age are not very good. People should be concerned and should be writing to their MPs now."
Killock said that file-sharers should be "persuaded, not bullied, into changing their habits".
Meanwhile, Thursday's reports have prompted an outpouring of anger on Twitter — grouped under the subject #webwar — that could see a march on Parliament in protest at Lord Mandelson's proposed changes.