Queen Declares War On Piracy, Delays Broadband Tax

Regulation

The Government finally set out its plans to cut off illegal file-sharers in today’s Queen’s Speech, but the £6 broadband tax is delayed till next year

The government’s strategy to tackle illegal file-sharing was set out in the Queen’s speech today, but no mention was made of the controversial broadband tax, which Minister for Digital Britain Stephen Timms promised would be law by January.

“My government will introduce a bill to ensure communications infrastructure that is fit for the digital age, supports future economic growth, delivers competitive communications and enhances public service broadcasting,” the Queen said in the speech, which sets out the programme of legislation till the General Election next year.

The announcement commits the government to pushing ahead with plans to implement a two-stage strategy to combat illegal file-sharing, which Lord Mandelson announced in October, consisting of an escalating series of sanctions.

The first stage will consist of sending letters to illegal downloaders and passing their details on to media companies, which have the option of launching their own legal actions. The second phase could involve a number of technical measures including slowing down the connection speed of offenders or temporarily suspending their connections.

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According to the government, the bill will be “creating a robust legal and regulatory framework to combat illegal file-sharing and other forms of online copyright infringement and give Ofcom a specific new responsibility to significantly reduce this practice.”

John Lovelock, Chief Executive of the Federation Against Software Theft (FAST), voiced his support for the bill, saying “People see software piracy as a victimless crime, but it robs organisations of their legitimate revenue to invest in new products, employees of their livelihood, and the government of taxable income from sales which all UK citizens benefit from eventually. What is rarely mentioned in the digital content debate is that 27 percent of the software used in UK businesses is illegal which equates to £1.3 billion loss per annum to the software industry alone – more than the losses to the film and music industries combined.”

However, the government’s hard-line approach to file-sharing has been heavily criticised by ISPs such as BT and TalkTalk, which have complained about the high costs of implementing such a scheme as well as the difficulties of enforcement. In October TalkTalk’s executive director of strategy and regulation Andrew Heaney said that the approach was “based on the principle of ‘guilty until proven innocent’ and substitutes proper judicial process for a kangaroo court”.

The UK government’s ability to cut off illegal file sharers could also come under EU scrutiny, as opinions on internet piracy laws continue to clash. On 6 October, European telecoms ministers formally rejected Amendment 138, which allowed governments and rights holders to force UK ISPs to disconnect their customers from the internet, opting instead for a watered-down provision stating that any measures must be based the presumption of innocence.

It was also announced yesterday that, from 2011, Spain would become the first major European country to give its citizens a legal right to buy broadband internet of at least one megabyte per second at a regulated price, wherever they live in the country (Finland passed a similar measure in October). Looking ahead, if broadband comes to be considered a legal right throughout Europe, the UK government’s plans to cut off file-sharers could be considered a breach of human rights.

While speculation and controversy rage around the prospect of cutting off internet pirates, plans for a 50p-a-month tax on phone lines to fund next-generation high-speed broadband networks appear to have been omitted from the speech, despite Minister Stephen Timm’s assurance that plans were proceeding “full steam ahead”.

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The plan to introduce universal broadband of at least 2 megabits per second was also not included, although a spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills told the BBC “It does not need legislation”.

At an event organised by the The BCS Chartered Institute for IT in September, Timms said “We want to make high speed networks nationally available. The next-generation fund will help that and we will legislate for it this side of a general election.”

Legislation for the broadband tax is now expected to be included either in the pre-Budget report on 9 December or as part of the Finance Bill, due next year.

Other elements of the bill included a reorganisation of the radio spectrum and a classification system for video games. The digital economy bill will be announced in parliament tomorrow, with publication of the full details to follow on Friday.


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