The controversial Digital Economy Bill could be pushed through parliament as part of the “wash up” ahead of the election in April, according to industry insiders
The Digital Economy Bill, which has been the topic of heated debate since it was first announced as part of the Queen’s speech in November, could become law before April – ahead of the next general election.
According to senior industry figures, if the Bill proceeds to its second reading in the House of Commons by the time parliament is dissolved at the start of April, then it is likely to enter the “wash up” process – where legislation that has not finished its passage through parliament is pushed through.
The Bill contains several measures designed to reduce copyright infringement and combat piracy, some of which have been widely discredited by industry commentators and ISPs. As it stands, the Bill will enable government to impose an escalating series of sanctions on persistent file-sharers, starting with sending letters to illegal downloaders and culminating in slowing down the connection speed of offenders or temporarily suspending their connections.
Fast approval could cut debate short
Once the Bill reaches the “wash up” stage, the government will only be able to pass it with the support of the opposition, so any clauses that are opposed by the Tories are likely to be dropped. The Conservatives have already requested that government reverses a bid to set up “independently financed news consortia”, which will produce regional news to be shown only on ITV1.
“We have been clear that we want the bill to go through as quickly as possible,” a Tory spokeswoman told TechEye. “We are keen to get this passed and have therefore tried to speed up the bill by being clear over the clause we would like changed. This will hopefully decrease time spent on debate and further amendments and help the bill get passed.”
However, critics of the Bill have expressed concern that amendments are being made at the last minute without any proper debate or scrutiny. Only yesterday, the House of Lords dismissed the notorious Clause 17, which would have given Business Secretary Lord Mandelson the power to alter copyright law. The Lords have replaced it with a new – and arguably more draconian – amendment, which allows copyright owners to ask the high court to cut off websites that host illegally-shared files.
The amendment itself has already met with a dismayed response from the industry. “Our members are extremely concerned that the full implications of the amendment have not been understood and that the reasoning behind the amendment is wholly misguided,” said Nicholas Lansman, Secretary-General of the Internet Services Providers Association (ISPA).
Several other bodies are now also moving to oppose the early approval of the Digital Economy Bill. “Given the potentially profound impact it would have, we think this is unacceptable,” said Andrew Heaney, executive director of strategy and regulation at TalkTalk. Meanwhile, a group of Liberal Democrat MPs have labelled amendment 120A “draconian and unworkable” in an open letter to their party.
However, other industry commentators have been more sympathetic towards the government’s actions. “The government deserves credit for pushing through a proposal that is not a vote-winner,” one senior industry source told the Guardian. “They recognise that the creative industries are a huge asset for the country.”