You can tell it's election time, not because of the posturing and postulating that has swamped our televisions, but because of the way crucially important legislation is suddenly be rushed into law without due care and attention being paid to the ramifications.
Never more true was this than 11.15pm yesterday night (now 1am GMT) when a ramshackle group of just 236 MPs voted to pass the hugely controversial Digital Economy Bill (DEB). For the record, the total number of MPs is the House of Commons is 646, meaning roughly just one in three bothered to turn up to decide the fate of a law that (in an increasingly digital age) will have far longer term consequences than whether it is the Conservatives or Labour who cling onto power for the next five years. When MPs tell you it is important to turn up and vote remember it is, but also point out that just 36 per cent of them bothered to turn up for their own proposed legislation.
For what it's worth, the final vote came in at 189 in favour, 47 against - though only around 20 bothered to debate it with majority only coming in at the end to cast their vote. So what has been foisted upon us? In short: draconian powers to make Internet Service Providers block users' connections and provide their names and addresses to disgruntled copyright holders. In other words, the likes of the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), MPA (Music Publishers' Association) and MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) can force Virgin Media, Sky, O2, TalkTalk, etc to cut-off a user's connection if they can provide proof they are infringing their copyrighted material. From here they can demand to know who it was and sue.
So could, say, one child in a large household download - I dunno - a Lady Gaga track and have the MPA steamroller the family's ISP to disconnect the home before taking them for every penny in a court of law? Yep, thanks to last night's vote they soon can. So much for Internet access being a fundamental human right.
And what of the much discussed (and rightly feared) Clause 18 which proposed allowing courts to close "locations on the Internet" which it deemed "has been, is being or is likely to be used for or in connection with an activity that infringes copyright"? It was thrown out at the last minute. After all who would condone the taking down of websites purely on the suspicion they may in the future be up to no good? Erm... instead 'Clause 8' was introduced - also at the last minute - enabling the Secretary of State for business to order the closure of a "location on the Internet which the court is satisfied has been, is being or is likely to be used for or in connection with an activity that infringes copyright”. Sound familiar? So hands-up who wants to start a digitally focused business in the UK now? Well done MPs.
On the plus side, 'Clause 43' which proposed that work published on the Internet without an obvious owner could be used by organisations for commercial interests without paying royalties was cut. Had this passed it would likely have tied up courts for years with embittered photographers and graphic designers trying to take on multinational corporations.
Interestingly, the Digital Economy Bill started out life as a sweeping array of reforms also looking at worthy topics such as the role of Ofcom and regulation of TV and radio services - but the guts were largely ripped out of it to speed up its passing. Something that should happen later today when it completes the formalities of Royal Assent.
Why all this focus on speed? Because with a general election called for 6 May parliament has to be dissolved by 12 April and all pressing business needs to be concluded by that time. Should it not be, then it slides into the ether only to be revived if the newly elected government (or potentially a hung parliament) wish to do so. This accelerated phase, rather fittingly, is referred to as the "Wash Up", though in this case Wash Out seems far more appropriate.
Anti-DEB Labour MP Tom Watson warned that passing the bill into law would lead to "unintended consequences". I'd suggest that's putting it lightly...
In related news the 50p 'broadband tax' was scrapped yesterday. Not to be confused with the DEB, this was attached to the government's Finance Bill and also removed to speed its process through parliament. The tax was seen as a way of raising up to £170m to help finance the expansion of broadband networks across the nation - particularly to those more remote areas currently without high speed Internet access.
Labour says the tax will be reintroduced if it retains power, the Conservatives say instead the money will be found by setting aside a slice of the TV licence fee. Either way, however, the funding will come and - in the context of the DEB's approval - really, who cares...?
Story thumbnail courtesy of zeta.net (site's image cache finally updated!)