Ex-Digital Minister Opposes Mandelson’s File Share Clampdown

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Former minister Tom Watson MP says the government’s new hard-line approach to file-sharing will lead to accusations of undue interference from industry

Former minister for Digital Engagement Tom Watson has warned the government has opened itself up to accusations of having been “captured” by record and film companies following its threat to cut-off the internet access of file-sharers.

Watson, who until his decision to step down during the reshuffle that coincided with the MP expenses scandal, headed up all matters digital for the government, said that he disagreed with the government’s decision. “I’m disappointed with today’s announcement on the revisions to the filesharing consultation as it will lead to accusations that the government has been captured by the big lobby operations of powerful rightsholders…I just urge you to let me know your views in the comments section to my earlier post on filesharing. I’ll make sure Lord Mandelson and Stephen Timms see them.”

Watson’s comments coincide with reports of links between business secretary Peter Mandelson and music industry mogul David Geffen. It is alleged that the pair met during Mandelson’s recent holiday in Corfu – a trip during which he apparently helped run the government in Gordon Brown’s absence using his Blackberry. A government spokesman confirmed the meeting took place but denied there was any discussion of internet file-sharing.

Commenting on the meeting, Conservative MP David Davies told The Times: “It does seem a remarkable coincidence. Peter Mandelson should be forced to reveal the full extent of his meetings with wealthy friends on holiday and, in the name of openness, disclose exactly what they discussed.”

The Guardian has speculated that links between Lord Mandelson and Lucian Grainge – chairman of Universal Music – may also have contributed to the new policy.

Other opponents of the government’s plans to potentially cut-off the internet access of persistent file-shares claim the real cause of the problem lies with the record companies’ unwillingness to adopt electronic downloads.

Commenting on the news this week that the government is considering drastic action against file-sharers – and the households they occupy – Larry Whitty, chairman of consumer rights group Consumer Focus said that while it would be wrong to condone file-sharing, it was now a widespread activity – driven in part by the record companies’ reluctance to embrace new technology. “The rise of this activity is a consequence of the creative industries’ failure to deliver products that consumers want. The industry should get its own house in order rather than promote punitive measures like this,” he said.

Earlier this week the government announced a new consultation into direct measures against file-shares which could include cutting off the internet access of their entire household. Critics including a group representing the interests of ISPs were particularly angered by the government’s decision to interrupt a longer term investigation into file-sharing led by communications watchdog Ofcom – which the government said would take too long to respond to the issue.

“Previously, it had been proposed that Ofcom would undergo a detailed process in order to ascertain that technical measures were required,” the government stated. “With this approach, the earliest that measures could come into play was during 2012. The Government has now reached the view that, if action was deemed necessary, this might be too long to wait given the pressure put on the creative industries by piracy.”

Other privacy experts have argued that government intervention in file-sharing is a case of too much too late and the issue is actually beginning to resolve itself anyway with legitimite download and streaming sites – such as Spotify – reducing the frequency of illegal file-sharing.

“This is the wrong moment to go in this direction. Online music revenues are going up, illicit filesharing is going down,” said the Open Rights Group in a blog statement. “Instead of letting the market solve the problems, the government seems intent on heavy-handed intervention, that could include disconnection and other account restrictions. This would be in direct contravention of their own goal of universal broadband access, as well as a curtailment of people’s freedom of expression.”

Watson stepped down as a Cabinet Office minister, in part of a government

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reshuffle catalysed by the expenses scandal which hit MPs from every party. He intends to remain as an MP, and contest the next election, according to reports.