Digital Economy Bill railroaded through parliament

The UK’s controversial Digital Economy Bill was voted through last night after just two hours of debate – and the presence of only 40-odd MPs out of a total of 646.

“Frankly, there has been a squalid deal between the three Front Benches, and they should be ashamed of themselves,” said Labour MP Tom Watson.

The much criticised Clause 18 was removed, but replaced with a very similar measure, allowing the government to force ISPs to block access to websites hosting copyrighted material.

It now gives the Secretary for State for Business the right to block “a location on the internet which the court is satisfied has been, is being or is likely to be used for or in connection with an activity that infringes copyright”.

This has outraged observers who point out that the words “is likely to be used” in theory allow sites to be blocked even if they haven’t actually done anything wrong.

The High Court can also block sites for “any issues of national security raised by the Secretary of State.”

MPs also voted against Clause 43, which would have allowed the use of so-called orphan works – those for which no copyright holder could be found.

Observers have accused the government of rushing through the bill before the general election on 6 May. Certainly, last night’s debate gave the impression that most of the members couldn’t wait to get back to the Commons bar.

Conservative MP John Redwood commented during the debate, “It is quite wrong that a Bill of such importance and magnitude was not tabled earlier. It is quite wrong that there is an attempt to rush through all parts of the Bill without proper scrutiny and debate.”

And Labour’s Austin Mitchell agreed: “A delay of three months would not produce the collapse of the creative industries, which has been held up as the threat hanging over us,” he said.

The bill will have a third reading before it becomes law, but it’s almost certain to be approved.

Opponents such as the Open Rights Group  have vowed to fight on. “We’re at the beginning of an election, and the 20 million people who vote now have the opportunity to turn up at hustings, ask awkward questions and ultimately cast their vote,” executive director Jim Killock told TechEye.

He added that he believed that the bill contravened human rights law and EU law, and that a legal challenge would still be possible.