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Digital Economy Bill vs Digital Britain: Has this government got digital schizophrenia?

A tale of two Bills
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Written by Natasha Lomas on

A tale of two Bills

The government's digital credibility is the biggest casualty of the last minute rush to get policy through Parliament before the general election, says silicon.com's Natasha Lomas.

In the dying days of this Parliament the Labour government has been scrambling to push through a raft of legislation - including the Finance Bill, and of course the Digital Economy Bill.

While both pieces of legislation stand to have a significant impact on the future of the UK's internet connections, the government's handling of the two bills couldn't have been more different.

The Finance Bill originally contained the government's proposed 50p per month tax on landlines, intended to help fund the rollout of next-generation broadband to underserved areas, as set out in the Digital Britain report last year. 'Contained' being the operative word. The government was forced to jettison the tax to appease the Tories (who opposed it) in the mad dash to get the Bill through Parliament before the general election campaign kicks off in earnest.

How such a key plank of the Digital Britain agenda ended up being ripped out and tossed back is perplexing to say the least. Of course, if re-elected, a Labour government is all but certain to table another Finance Bill that reinstates the landline tax. Even so, leaving such a flagship policy to the last minute smacks of pretty pitiful management, and perhaps even cold feet about introducing a new tax in the run up to an election.

And then there is the Digital Economy Bill, known as the DEB or Debill for short. It's the second branch of the government's digital policy, and another piece of tech-related legislation thrust into Parliament's 'wash-up' period - the few short days before Parliament is dissolved - leaving MPs mere hours to debate a lengthy and contentious Bill that deserved a far longer period of scrutiny.

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DEB and DB - how can the PM fail to give with one hand but whip his MPs to take with the other?
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Digital Britain aims to expand and speed up internet access in the UK with a universal service commitment for 2Mbps broadband; funds to take next-gen broadband access to the vast majority of the nation; and a drive for digital inclusion to get more internet-less citizens online. The Digital Economy Bill on the other hand moves to suspend or slow down some web users' connections by tackling those who are misusing broadband by downloading copyrighted content illegally.

You could say DEB is the yang to DB's yin. Critics, however, put it rather less politely: that DEB threatens the openness that makes the internet great; that disconnection, snooping and web blocking are retrograde steps not appropriate to a free and fair democracy; that speeding the Bill through the wash-up is an insult to the strength of public feeling it has generated.

During a debate in the House of Commons this week, Tory MP John Redwood drew attention to the marathon - and apparently unprecedented - dash MPs were being asked to perform in getting the Bill through Parliament. "Is my honourable friend of my opinion that never before has the House been asked to take the second reading of a big, contentious Bill, the Finance Bill, and [the] committee stage and all remaining stages of another big, contentious Bill, the Digital Economy Bill, on the same day, with lots of other business tabled as well?" he asked. "Is that not complete chaos?"

Another Conservative MP, William Cash, also sounded his concern about the unseemly acceleration of DEB - making the point that the impact and implications of the Bill's many clauses are sophisticated and not immediately obvious, and that support, therefore, should not be a given. "The Bill should not be rushed through," he noted during its second reading. "It is not the Dangerous Dogs Bill; it is a very different type of Bill."

It's a basic but key point: regulating internet access is a rather more sophisticated business than tackling pitbulls...

Whatever your view on the rights and wrongs of a heavy-handed 'stick-based' approach to digital copyright infringers - who, let's not forget, are acting illegally - one thing is certain: railroading complex legislation through Parliament at the last possible second is a recipe for disaster and disharmony, not to mention a law full of holes, loopholes and damaging side-effects.

A Bill that has not been properly chewed over by our elected representatives also paves the way for a law that people will feel justified in ignoring.

Some are doing just that: ISP TalkTalk is refusing to abide by DEB - saying it will go to court before handing over customers' data or disconnecting accounts. While close to 5,000 Twitter users have already tweeted their support of whatdebill.org making a public declaration that they will snub DEB.

The undignified push and pull of digital policy in the wash-up makes a mockery of the government's tech plans - so quick to ditch a policy to expand broadband to areas that need it, yet tenacious as an attack dog when it came to safeguarding powers that could cut broadband off.

It goes way beyond bad management - it smacks instead of digital schizophrenia.

The internet is a complex landscape, not a wasteland overrun with dangerous dogs. Yes there are pirates, but it's a many-headed, many-faceted entity with as many faces as it has users. To some it's a livelihood. To others an education. For many it's communication, expression, information and entertainment. Some consider it a human right. The Prime Minister himself has said he believes in broadband for all - calling it "the electricity of the digital age".

How can the PM fail to give with one hand but whip his MPs to take with the other? If that's not digital schizophrenia from the government, it begins to look like Luddite digital phobia - a condition which casts an ominous shadow over the future of digital Britain.

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