Digital Economy Bill meets online democratic resistance

The Digital Economy Bill has reignited the British sense of democracy with several online petitions springing up to urge MPs not to pass it.

The Bill, which has been labeled at best ‘controversial’ has been passed by the House of Lords and is now at the House of Commons stage of approval. As reported on TechEye, many are now afraid the Bill will be pushed through before the general election, in a process called the ‘wash up’.

Websites such as 38 Degrees are urging readers to email their MPs in association with the Open Rights Group.

“The draconian law is opposed by industry experts, internet service providers (like TalkTalk and BT), web giants including Google, Yahoo and Ebay and even the British Library,” says the 38 Degrees website.

“Despite all this opposition, the Government is trying to rush it through quietly just before the election without proper debate – without a chance for us to voice our opposition.”

“The only way to get the bill through would be to rush it through without a real Parliamentary debate,” the site adds. “Let’s stop that happening.”

A number of other petitions have been unsuccessful since the Bill was announced in November 2009, however 38 Degrees hopes that by appealing directly to politicians the bill will be delayed. The site has already seen tens of thousands of visitors and has been heavily promoted on Twitter.

“This Bill could have huge consequences for online activity that are currently poorly understood,” said Elizabeth Sparrow, President of the BCS, which is encouraging people to participate with the debate on the Bill. ‘The Institute is highlighting the importance of the Internet to citizenship and the opportunities for everyone to participate. Those opportunities could be curtailed and even diminished if some of the proposals being discussed make it into law.”

The Bill includes a new clause only introduced on the final reading in the Lords, that could see ISPs forced by courts to block websites, such as YouTube, that contain large amounts of copyright-infringing material.

The Department for Business Skills & Innovation says there is no date set for the consideration of the proposed legislation in the Commons, but some fear that the Dark Lord Mandelson will be pushing for the bill to be in the wash up.

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group also described the law as draconian and said Lord Mandelson was “preparing to rush through” this legislation “without democratic debate”.

Labour MP Derek Wyatt told TechEye that he was concerned that if the Bill was not passed before the general election it would be scrapped altogether. “It is my belief that if we cannot agree on the clauses and if we don’t get everything sorted out then the Bill will be shelved for at least 18 months,” he said. “I think that they will not visit the Digital Economy Bill until after a second election, especially if we have a hung parliament.”

However some are for the bill and are even encouraging MPs to pass it as sooner. John Lovelock, Chief Executive of FAST, and self-titled “voice of the British software industry”, has told MPs not to unreasonably delay the introduction of the Bill, which he describes as ‘important’.

“The software industry and other copyright holders in the wider creative industry welcome the attention that is being focused on copyright issues in this digital age,” he said. “Delaying the legislation unnecessarily in the Commons will not help. The Bill has had scrutiny in the Lords to excess.

“Whilst campaigners have rightly pointed out that we shouldn’t allow politicians the power to meddle unrestrained with our copyright regime, let us be clear, there are checks and balances in place being eminently sensible given the rapid pace in digital technology and the difficulties in protecting intellectual property,” concluded Lovelock.

Last week some influential technology giants including Google UK, BT and TalkTalk signed an open letter to the Financial Times opposing some of the proposed amendments to the Bill.

The Digital Economy Bill sets out a number of proposals designed to tackle internet piracy, as well as ensuring all of the UK has access to 2Mbps broadband.

To email your MP regarding the Bill, visit the 38 Degrees site. Just enter your postcode above (so it can find your MP) and click “participate” to get started.