The government has been forced to water down a copyright clause in its Digital Economy Bill, after being hit with a barrage of complaints
Government ministers have backed down over a clause in the Digital Economy Bill that would give Business Secretary Lord Mandelson the power to alter copyright law without the need for further legislation.
When the Digital Economy Bill was published in November, officials claimed that the power to amend the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 was required by government “for the purpose of preventing or reducing online copyright infringement”. They claimed that this would enable them to respond more efficiently new methods of viewing and transmitting copyright material and “future-proof” the legislation to combat digital piracy. According to the Bill, these powers would be handled by “statutory instrument”, so could not be blocked by MPs or the Lords.
However, the Bill was met with a barrage of complaints, most notably in the form of a public letter to Lord Mandelson from Google, Facebook, Yahoo and eBay, condemning the proposal. “We believe the Bill’s clause 17 opens the way for arbitrary measures,” the companies complained. “This power could be used, for example, to introduce additional technical measures or increase monitoring of user data, even where no illegal practice has taken place”.
Further opposition from the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, as well as several members of the House of Lords, has led to the government issuing a list of amendments to the Bill in order to “clarify the breadth and scope of the clause and further reinforce the transparency of the process and the scrutiny of Parliament”. Under the new amendments, existing copyright laws could only be amended if there was a “significant” new threat of infringement. However, the government stood by its decision to include clause 17, saying “We would not have written it into the Bill if we did not think it was needed.”
Clause 17 is not the only controversial element of the Digital Economy Bill. Lord Mandelson has also laid out his strategy to combat illegal file-sharing through an escalating series of sanctions, starting with sending letters to illegal downloaders and culminating in slowing down the connection speed of offenders or temporarily suspending their connections. The proposal continues to cause concern among Internet campaigners, including the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) and TalkTalk. More than 30,000 people have also signed a petition on the government’s website, complaining that the measures would penalise innocent people.
The government’s controversial proposal for a 50p-per-month broadband tax was also approved by chancellor Alistair Darling in his pre-Budget report. The broadband tax, which is expected to raise around £175 million a year, has attracted much criticism from industry experts, some of whom say the fund will fall a long way short of the amount needed to provide super-fast fibre services to every UK home.
The Conservative Party has already said it will scrap the tax “as soon as possible” if it wins power at the next election, warning that “heavy-handed state intervention” will deter private companies from investing money to upgrade the country’s Internet infrastructure. Tory shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt claims the Conservatives would favour a market-led approach, with public funds only considered once the commercial market has taken broadband as far as it can.
A separate amendment to the Digital Economy Bill, proposed by Conservative peer Lord Lucas, has also been attracting some media attention this week. The amendment would see search engines being made exempt from copyright infringement laws brought in with the Bill. In his proposal Lucus writes: “Every provider of a publicly accessible website shall be presumed to give a standing and non-exclusive license to providers of search engine services to make a copy of some or all of the content of that website, for the purpose only of providing said search engine services.”
This proposal is likely to come under considerable attack from the likes of Rupert Murdoch, who is currently embroiled in an attempt to stop Google from listing News Corp content for free. However, some analysts have poured cold water on Murdoch’s proposal, claiming that News Corp blocking access to Google’s web crawlers would almost certainly backfire.