Lib Dems Mount Digital Economy Act Challenge

UK government

The Liberal Democrats have fulfilled a promise to challenge the Digital Economy Act in a Parliamentary debate

The Digital Economy Act (DEA) nearly faced a challenge on Tuesday afternoon, with Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert proposing a motion that would have repealed parts of the law related to website blocking.

Huppert, the MP for Cambridge and chair of the Liberal Democrats’ IT policy working group, tabled amendments to a separate measure (the Protection of Freedoms Bill) on Tuessday afternoon which would have had the effect of repealing sections 17 to 18 of the DEA, which permit websites to be blocked if they are suspected of infringing copyright.

The amendment was not discussed, as the discussion ran out of time, but the move showed the Liberal Democrats are serious about challenging the controversial Bill which has become part of coalition policy. “My #deact amendment wasn’t reached in time, so wasn’t taken. I’ll keep looking for opportunities!,” tweeted Huppert.

‘Dangerous’ powers

The Act, designed to protect copyright owners from online piracy, includes provision to cut copyright infringers off the Internet, and also website blocking powers which are “dangerous” according to the Open Rights Group (ORG). ISPs led by BT and TalkTalk are opposing the Act through the courts, and were granted leave for a fresh appeal last week.

“Under the Act, sites would not need to infringe copyright – just be suspected that they will in the future,” said ORG executive director Jim Killock (pictured)  in a statement. “And even if a site removes all infringing content, then blocks may not be removed. New website blocking powers are not needed, as there are already powers in the Copyright Act (section 97a) to block sites that are proven, through the courts, to be infringing copyright.”

Overall, the DEA is a “rushed mess”, he said. The ORG is urging citizens to telephone their MPs and ask them to take part in the debate.

Last month the Liberal Democrats formally pledged to repeal certain elements of the DEA, in a fresh sign of the growing rift between the party and the Conservatives.

The DEA was hugely controversial when it became law back in April 2010, having being rushed through parliament in the dying days of the then-Labour government. Some of its measures, such as the three-strike system for illegal file-sharing, have sat uneasily with many industry watchers, politicians and even the United Nations.

Liberal Democrat opposition

Last month the Lib Dems approved a policy to remove the controversial copyright enforcement and website-blocking measures sections in the Digital Economy Act, after a technology policy paper was put forward to the Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference.

The paper, entitled “Preparing The Ground: Stimulating Growth In The Digital Economy,” had two elements concerning the DEA.

Option A is the more far-reaching, as it seeks the repeal of sections 3-18 of the Digital Economy Act, which relate to copyright infringement. “Good legislation is built upon a robust evidential framework and a clear democratic mandate, neither of which were secured in this case,” said the paper. “The ultimate result has been a deeply flawed and unworkable Act which stands only as the main emblem of a misguided, outdated and negative approach.”

Essentially, sections 3 to 18 cover the three-strike system for illegal downloaders that could result in repeat offenders being temporarily banned from the web. It covers the legal requirement for ISPs to block access to sites that contain copyright-infringing material. It also includes the monitoring of customer activities, as well as handing over contact details to right holders of those network connections that are being used for illegal file-sharing.

Option B, meanwhile, only recommends the repeal of sections 17 and 18 of the Act, which cover the blocking of websites hosting illegal content. Option B also recommends that sections 9 to 16 “should not be commenced until the government can demonstrate that the measures would be necessary and effective, and assent had been given through a vote of both Houses”. These are sections that allow ISPs to suspend web access for illegal downloaders

In the end, Lib Dem party members chose the more far-reaching Option A.

Attacking the DEA through the Protection of Freedoms Bill is a tangential move. The Bill is largely concerned with regulating state and surveillance through CCTV cameras and includes a framework for the police retention of DNA data.

Rewarding innovation not penalising pirates

“Tackling piracy is important, but it shouldn’t be seen as an end in itself,” Huppert in a statement at the time. “It’s more important to create conditions that reward innovation and talent, and ensure that creators get the benefits of their work.”

The Conservatives, for their part, essentially inherited the Digital Economy Act from Labour, but so far have only offered a six month review of current IP protection laws.

Indeed, in July, Communications Minister Ed Vaizey described the high court challenge to the DEA by BT and TalkTalk as “odd”.

That same month however, the UK’s equivalent of Silicon Valley called on the government to overhaul the UK’s outdated copyright laws. The call was made in an open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, with British tech firms urging the government to implement the IP law reforms recommended in the report compiled by Professor Ian Hargreaves of Cardiff University, which was released in April this year.

Tom Jowitt contributed to this report.

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