Barring some unforeseen development, the House of Commons in the U.K. will approve a dreadful piece of legislation called the Digital Economy Bill being pushed by the entertainment, sports and other industries. The implications for the U.S. are enormous.
The legislation, which would allow Internet users to be thrown off line for copyright infringement, or even to block access to entire Web sites, is scheduled to come up for consideration tomorrow (Tues.) under a fast-track process called “wash-up,” used at the end of Parliamentary sessions, much as the “wrap-up” is used in the U.S. Congress – for bills to be taken up with little debate.
The bill has already been passed by the House of Lords, so action by Commons would be the final step in approvals before the current session of Parliament ends, expected to be on April 12. About 20,000 people have already sent letters to their Members of Parliament asking that the bill receive proper debate. It now appears as if several hours of discussion have been scheduled for tomorrow (April 6).
Under the bill, subscribers to Internet Service Providers can be thrown off of an Internet access service if “it appears to a copyright owner” that either “a subscriber to an internet access service has infringed the owner’s copyright by means of the service”; or
That “a subscriber to an internet access service has allowed another person to use the service, and that other person has infringed the owner’s copyright by means of the service.”
The U.K. regulator, OFCOM, has a great deal of latitude to assess punishment for accused infringers. It could be three strikes, or any number of strikes before someone can be kicked off. There are also provisions for blocking access to Web sites, and those were subject to heated discussion. Originally the bill gave courts directly the authority to block access to Web sites. New amendments proposed by the government change the procedure some, but only by giving more power to administrative authorities. The original site-blocking language was drafted by the British music industry.
Opposition to the bill has come from across the digital frontier, from digital rights groups like the Open Rights Group and Consumer Focus to the chairman of British Telecom and other groups representing Internet Service Providers. The changes to the bill haven’t lessened the opposition, with one industry spokesman calling the bill still “a dangerous piece of legislation.”
One British attorney said, “Web blocking could happen without any proof of copyright infringement – just if the court thinks it 'likely' that a site might be used 'in connection with' copyright infringement.”
There are complex processes by which consumers could appeal their being thrown offline. Consumer Focus said it “does not believe that forcing subscribers to prove their innocence through an expensive appeals process, in order to avoid being disconnected from the Internet for copyright infringement, complies with the right to due process, that is the presumption of innocence and a fair trial…”
It’s not secret that the entertainment industries in the U.S. have been pushing for some type of legislation, “three strikes” or otherwise, to allow them to throw people accused of infringing copyright off of the Internet. They got their wish in France, although that law was subsequently modified to require a court order – something so far lacking in the U.S. version.
Rest assured, if that bill passes Parliament tomorrow night, the U.S. content industry and its minions will have it in the hands of U.S. officials on Wednesday, pleading for the same thing here. After all, if the U.K. could do it, why couldn’t we?
There are lots of reasons why we shouldn’t do the same thing, ranging from the existence of laws already in force to the inherent unfairness of the “three strikes” process, which could extend from banning people to blocking Web sites.
Seriously, the U.K. should know better than to consider seriously a half-baked scheme like this drawn up by the content industry. The irony of calling the legislation the “digital economy” bill should not be lost on anyone. It’s a “content protection” bill, and one commentator has even warned could backfire and hurt the sponsors if customers are scared off of downloading music, even legally downloading music. File that under the “be careful what you wish for” folder.