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File Sharers Beware: MPs Approve Digital Economy Bill

Gordon Kelly


File Sharers Beware: MPs Approve Digital Economy Bill

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!)


April 8, 2010, 11:25 am

Two pieces of supremely depressing news. What's the point of us looking into the details the budget, if the washup period just invalidates things like the Broadband Tax - a tax I'd actually enjoy paying, given how embarrassing our internet infrastructure is in the world stage. And what's the point of protesting against voter apathy when it's even reached the House of Commons itself? A plague on all their houses - first and second homes.


April 8, 2010, 12:09 pm

This is quite common though - the cider tax was also dropped, effective June. What is said is not what is done....


April 8, 2010, 12:35 pm

So Illegal Downloading... I find it difficult to understand what an infringement might looks like. Lets take an example of a song in the current UK chart and how i might get that content.

I watch the video on MTV and record it on SKY+, its recorded on a hard drive in my living room.

I record the chart show on my DAB, its on a hard drive in my kitchen.

I listen to the song using youtube / iplayer, it streams to my computer and is stored on the hard drive, but doesn't persist unless i use software.

I download the song from a torrent client.

In all respects i have the same song recorded on a hard drive in my house, i'm not sure which of these constitute a breach of the law, maybe all?

Further to my confusion, if i also own the CD, do they all become legal copies, i.e. the version on my computer, how is it now any different from importing from CD via itunes.


April 8, 2010, 12:52 pm

Things like this just go to show what a complete shower of ****s most MPs are.


April 8, 2010, 1:11 pm

Whatever your stance maybe in terms of the meat of this bill it is a travesty of our democracy that such an ill-thought out law can be passed. As you have stated, there were so few MPs actually involved in the debating process and by all accounts the few that were there seemed to know little on the mechanics of what was being proposed and the ramifications there of. MPs turning up late to just cast their vote shows us that our MPs truly do not have any interest in what the voting public feel and are really there only to serve themselves (and big business).

This has left a bitter taste in my mouth.


April 8, 2010, 1:14 pm

Christ, we're all buggered now.

I'm guessing the law about closing down sites only applies to UK ones, so whilst they may not be able to shut down Pirate Bay they can cut off anyone using it for copyrighted material for example. However, how does this work for sites like news groups who (I believe) encrypt their file traffic? How would anyone be able to prove anyone was using it for copyrighted material if it was impossible to find out what that material was?

This is really depressing. Good to see the government keeping in touch with future voters, eh?


April 8, 2010, 1:23 pm

I imagine atleast 100 MPs paired up for this. Basically, if an MP cannot attend and would vote yes he gets an MP who would vote no not to attend therefore they cancel out effectively not voting. Bear in mind this doesn't work if they both want to vote the same way, which is why this is done between opposing MPs. Its a strange old tradition that only MPs will fully understand.


April 8, 2010, 1:23 pm


Can we do anything to stop or reverse this? Is there a campaign to force the government to revise this under some human rights bill or other, for example?

Carl Abudephane

April 8, 2010, 1:38 pm

I suggest you go and download a film to watch. How about Gilliam's Brazil. Even if you've already seen Brazil, it was probably a good while ago, so today, this evening, or perhaps over the weekend, watch Brazil. It's quite terrifying to watch, even more so now than ever before, so vividly does it illustrate living in England today.

Don Kanonjii

April 8, 2010, 1:43 pm

I have lost all faith in the government (all parties). How can such a thing happen and not go unchallenged? What ever happended to democracy? This version of the DEB will cause MAJOR problems for legitimate users in the near future.

"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&#8221. AND "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"? are for all intents and purposes identicle! I believe file sharers and would be file sharers use google to obtain things. Looks like we will not be accessing any and all search engines soon as they are "likely" involved in some indirect and unintentional way. Hell! How can you SUSPECT that a site "may" be "likely" to be used for ANY purpose in the future other than what it is intended for. I could for example run a website selling fruit and veg, there is nothing to say that that site could not then go on to provide links to or host copyrighted material, therefore a judge could be satisfied that it could be used in future for copyright infringement. I hope this is fought out as it is detrimental to the entire internet! I have said before and qwill say again, I am all for erradicating illegal file sharing but it HAS to be done in a sensible way and heavily debated in the open PROPERLY. It like Banning someone for driving, saying its likely they will have an accident at some point in the future. Baboons could make more reasonable Law.

On top of that the the fact that international organisations and companies with already very poor reputations when it comes to incorrectly accusing people (OAP's, people who dont even have computers etc) and using illegal methods to gather information (hackers) such as the RIAA, MPA, MPAA on top of content providers themselves. It looks like many more thousands of innocent people (in addition to those already being falsy harrased in this country) are going to start being accused of file sharing when they have not or have been the victims of cyber crime. Dispicable does not even begin to describe how low and wrong this all is.


April 8, 2010, 2:12 pm

IMO this will make no difference to heavy duty downloaders, but will affect young kids and the not so technical.

Anyone I know who downloads on a regular basis either uses rapidshare (boooooo!) or private trackers. Outside of my IT friends, average downloaders use public tracker search engines like piratebay. I personally have received a letter for apparently using a public tracker with demands for money. (Davenport Lyons was the lawyers - Read Slyck for info).

But saying that, you have to remember this law hasnt been contested in court or anything and theres a number of things that need to taken into account. Wireless use is prolific (that the right word) in my block of flats I have access to about 10/12 wireless AP's. Half of which are WEP and I can crack in no more than 5 mins if I was so inclined. How does a court prove it was you that downloaded said file and your network was not penetrated? If you have a wireless connection, not IT savvy or just dont care and someone uses your network whose fault is it? (before you answer remember people have been arrested in the UK for using an unsecured wireless network). All the same defences stand, are you 100% sure that was my IP at the time knowing mines dynamic? How accurate are ISP logs? (I have no idea) Was my network penetrated? Did a minor cause the offence without my knowledge? If someone you live with downloads pirated material, should the billholder be punished even though that had nothing to do with it and no knowledge of the offence? (ISP T&C is not law and iirc there is no law that makes a billholder responsible for everything that is done with a connection).

Will be interesting to see how this turns out. I think the non-techs will be burned, the tech savvy will adapt.


April 8, 2010, 2:14 pm

If it aint broke.....

Geoff Richards

April 8, 2010, 2:31 pm

... break it? :(


April 8, 2010, 2:35 pm

The conservatives have actually given some people a reason to vote for them. Bad times...

The disbelief in seeing this bill (semi-approved) in it's non-final state is disbelieving to me. It baffles me on the same level as when Ubisoft implemented their DRM which required you to be constantly connected to the internet even just to play single-player games.

I believed that infriged on some sort of personal liberty and what you were allowed to do with licensed content. E.g. DRM should not erode consumer value in a product. To be honest, not being able to play a single player game, say on the train without internet is just a backhand to consumers.

This new law was backed by many creatives and copyright holders. It's no doubt going to lead to a slippery slope problem in terms of which sites get blocked and just lead to a host of sites leaving UK jurisdiction. Since wikileaks leaked that video of Iraqi civilians being targeted, the US govt would surely have liked to close that site down. If that occurred in the UK, it would probably be quite easy to do. Eg. Military claims copyright on the video, and shuts down the site (I exaggerate a little, but you can see where things are going to lead).

Copyright holders are given too much protection I believe, and their understanding of how piracy and new age content distribution works is severely distorted into a simple (benefits us,harms us scenario). I would have expected a law like this to take many years to finally pass.

Very disappointed and scared. With the amount of content on the internet at the moment, it's difficult to know when one is breaking copyright. For instance, how can the average consumer work out whether they are using properly licensed content or pirated material??

Every internet user has strayed onto illegal content at some point during their browsing activities. I have no hope that the penalties outweigh the harm to the consumer. This bill is a threat to the evolution of the internet. Perhaps protecting outdated business models that hold the economy behind. None of this, especially the wider impact of the bill is clear. So why is it being pushed through so quickly???


April 8, 2010, 3:36 pm

No crazier than our libel laws...


April 8, 2010, 3:50 pm

I think that according to the Guardian darkspark, it was mainly the Lib Dems that opposed the bill, so surely it would provide an incentive to vote for them instead. Of course it'd be even more incentive if enough of them had turned up to the Commons to actually be able to block the damn thing. It's not like we don't know all the party's messages by now, and yet the campaign's national trek has just become priority number one. The leader's debates'll probably give them the level of exposure they're all really looking for anyway, and yet their 'Canteen Campaigning' has severely damaged them from doing their actual job - debating and scrutinising legislation. So what now - is the average internet user's only hope, the undemocratic institution of the law lords now?


April 8, 2010, 4:10 pm

@GoldenGuy and anyone else who knows about this -

So the Lib Dems are "kind of" opposed to the bill? To be honest, this is the only issue that i really can grab hold of in this election, so i want to vote for whichever party most strongly oposses the DEB.

P.S. Please don't lecture me on other issues that i should care more about, people vote for much worse reasons that protecting their internet privacy and stopping condemnation of people without a trial.

evil mart

April 8, 2010, 4:22 pm

Although i'm not surprised it was passed, after all they're good at making laws they don't really understand, it really does show how hopeless this country is, as others point out there is so much room for abuse.

As soon as we vote the next load of idiots into power, just watch the next set of scandals emerge.

How about a new law where we remove the Great from Great Britain, doesn't look like we need it any more...

It will be interesting to see what the creator of the internet will have to say on this.


April 8, 2010, 4:27 pm

A very sad day. I would suggest that you write to your MP (I would recommend http://www.theyworkforyou.com/ to make it easy). Make sure they know how you feel about this, it will have far more impact that posting here (no offence to our TR guys).


April 8, 2010, 5:22 pm

@scotw - Thanks for the link. I have written to my MP about this issue. i'm interested to know which way they voted (if at all) on the issue. This is a serious issue that will gain momentum as normal people realise the implications on their everyday life. We aren't debating a bill about the internet in the year 2000. Not many people would have cared then. However today there is a lot of unaccounted risk to the many in benefit of the relative few


April 8, 2010, 6:12 pm

In terms of practicality, some of the laws will not come into force for another 12 months and I suspect once the election is out of the way that there will be mounting pressure upon the government (whoever it is) to take a closer look at the DEB.

In its current state the fallout is immense. Here are just a few examples of things that will likely happen:

*Public WiFi will be cutback by small businesses scared of the legal fallout

*Digital businesses will have second thoughts about starting up in the UK

*Tabloids will run stories about old 'little Lucy' being denied Internet to do her homework access because of one file downloaded by a friend of her teenage brother when visiting the family home

*There will be mass adoption of SSL encrypted P2P/Usenet downloading (worked in Sweden when their laws were stiffened up, will work here)

*Techies will hack the WiFi of MPs and use it to download copyright material to make a point

*Individual MPs will start coming out to say they apologise for not attending/voting against the DEB.

Copyright holders will become the new public hate figures of 2011.


April 8, 2010, 6:28 pm

Gordon said 'Copyright holders will become the new public hate figures of 2011.'

So that will be two years on the trot then...


April 8, 2010, 6:38 pm

@noTHINGface nah, banks in 2009, MPs in 2010, copyright holders in 2011 ;)


April 8, 2010, 6:43 pm

Gordon said "*Techies will hack the WiFi of MPs and use it to download copyright material to make a point"

Brilliant, I wish I had the knowledge to be able to do this! It would be the perfect example to show how and why this bill doesn't work!! As you said Gordon, I'm sure someone will do this before too long.


April 8, 2010, 7:26 pm

I have read lots of bleating here about various things, including the laughable notion that internet access is a fundamental human right (seriously?) and lazy, out-of-touch MPs, but not one post has come up with any alternative to this Bill that will help to protect the livelihoods of copyright holders. Or do people not think artists are at risk because of the increasing numbers of people who seem to think music should be free?

Instead of moaning about what we already knew about the workings of Parliament (do you really think all MPs turn up for all votes?), let's hear what you would do to combat the problem of copyright theft through illegal downloading. I'm genuinely interested.

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