Digital Economy Bill could provoke citizen backlash

Attempts by opposition peers in the House of Lords to move amendments to the Digital Economy Bill to give more protection to end users have failed.

The bill, currently going through a committee stage in the House of Lords, is intended to protect copyright holders against downloads of infringing material. As we reported earlier, the government proposes to make those accused of infringing the act, once it becomes law, to pay for the cost of the appeal.

Lord Lucas, a conservative peer, attempted to move an amendment to give citizens more rights. When an ISP subscriber in his words “trips over the threshold”, he or she receives an explanatory warning letter. If someone commits a subsequent infringement, they enter the “technical measures” realm.

Lord Lucas asked the Minister what assistance will be given to citizens if they have to make a defence on technical aspects in front of a tribunal. He asked: “How will they be assisted to show that their computer contains no infringing material or that their network has not been used in ways that are inappropriate?”

Lord Young of Norwood replied for the government. He said: “There may well be a first, second or even third letter before we reach the technical measures…We have debated whether it would be a reasonable defence in an appeal if they validate that they have taken those measures.”

Lord Whitty, a Labour minister said the government was ignoring some basic principles. “The government have to take on board the fact that the users have no rights under this bill.” He said there should be a fair clause defence created, as in US law. “At the moment, all the rights are on the part of the copyright holder. The obligations are on the ISP, with some protections, and there are no rights for the user.”

The government is “inventing a new tribunal system,” he said. He said: “I still do not believe that there is a clear case for having a judicial process separate to what applies in all other forms of copyright law.”

He said that the bill gives no rights to users, and doesn’t say how subscribers can protect themselves. He said there was likely to be a backlash and reminded the government that in Swedish elections nearly a quarter of all voters under 25 voted for the Pirate Party. “The mainstream parties had alienated those voters,” he said. “There are bigger social and political issues involved in this than the government are facing up to.”

A Liberal peer warned against “trigger happy” behaviour by copyright owners.

* Hansard – the offical record of the proceedings of the UK parliament, is here.