Britain's Digital Economy Bill Causes Outrage

The UK’s Labour Government, shortly before midnight last night, finally managed to push through its Digital Economy Bill. It’s a controversial and wide-ranging piece of legislation aimed at tackling copyright infringement and, among other things, will force ISPs to cut off persistent file-sharers. Because the bill was forced through during the “washup” period before parliament is dissolved in advance of May’s general election, there has been concern that the bill hasn’t been debated thoroughly, and not enough attention has been paid to its implications for digital freedoms — for example, it could have the unintended consequence of forcing places like libraries and cafes to stop offering free Wi-Fi. It could also give the government the power to block sites like Wikileaks, just because it hosts copyright-infringing material.

There have been angry reactions to the passing of the bill in the social media sphere (it’s still a trending topic on Twitter as I write this), and from many tech journalists, bloggers, rights advocates — even many of the Labour party’s own MPs.

One of the main opponents among Labour MPs is Tom Watson, who voted against the bill and said of the proposals, “There might be a deal with the Tory front bench and the Lib Dem front bench but there are 20,000 people who have taken the time to email their MPs about this in the last seven days alone.” On Twitter, Watson said that voting against his party (known as “breaking the whip”) made him feel physically sick.

Echoing the comments made by Labour MP Kate Hoey, Techcrunch’s Mike Butcher calls the passing of the legislation “a stitch up” and points out that the bill could cause startups to move from the UK. He also points to Sweden, home of file-sharing site The Pirate Bay, where similar legislation was passed last year. At first, Internet traffic nosedived, but P2P file-sharing soon recovered, with one crucial difference — much it was now encrypted and untraceable. In a column for the Telegraph, Butcher describes the bill as “a nightmare of unintended consequences.”

In The Guardian, James Graham launched a scathing attack on the Bill, saying, “You would be hard-pressed to find a better example of how broken our current political system is than the passage of the digital economy bill through parliament,” and that the legislation was “made to order on behalf of the so-called creative industries in the face of opposition from pretty much everyone else.” Graham also lamented that a lack of Internet expertise in the House of Lords will mean that the legislation won’t get a proper debate there, either.

The Register’s Andrew Orlowski describes the forcing through of the bill as “a sort of procedural speed-dating” and also points out that, in some ways, the efforts of the Open Rights Group actually “helped unleash some really dangerous legislation into the wild.” BoingBoing’s Xeni Jardin is unequivocal in her criticism,  describing the bill as a “huge blow” for privacy and freedom, and goes on to say that “this thing makes the DMCA look like a warmup act.” TheNextWeb’s Martin Bryant has lamented it as well, describing its measures as “draconian,” but noting that the episode has been an interesting case study in improving the transparency of government and participation in politics through social media.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to know exactly what the bill means without having to trawl though the entirety of the document, paidContent has a handy guide to all of the measures proposed in the wide-ranging legislation.

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