More than 20,00 people may have demanded “a proper debate” on the Digital Economy Bill, but it didn’t stop it being whizzed through parliament and passed as legislation at the end of the last government.
So what now? The campaign hasn’t stopped here.
Repealthedigitaleconomyact.com has a big stopwatch counting the hours since the new government took office: how long will it take to repeal the act? Seven days so far and nothing yet.
The Open Rights Group has started a petition to repeal the act under the current government:
We, the signatories, call on the new Parliament to repeal sections 11-18 of the Digital Economy Act, dealing with copyright infringement and website blocking powers.
We call on Parliament to refuse to pass any Statutory Instrument that would institute interference with families’ or organisations’ communications as a punishment for actual or alleged civil copyright infringement.
At the time of writing, 5,921 have signed.
One of the protest groups on Facebook, Together Against The Digital Economy Act 2010, lays out why it believes UK citizens – and others – should be worried:
– Websites will be blocked for alleged copyright infringement.
– Families accused of sharing copyrighted files will be disconnected without trial. They will have to pay to appeal.
– Even if you don’t live in the UK, it sets a worrying precedent for other countries to follow suit.
Disconnection or “technical measures” like bandwidth throttling will kick in if file sharing does not drop by an incredible 70 per cent. There are no alternative punishments to disconnection, no matter what the damage it will cause, and there is no statutory limit on the length of these disconnections, called, in the weasel words of the Act, “temporary account suspension”.
Despite thousands of letters of concern and a petition with over 35,000 signatures of protest, the Bill was rushed through in the final days of parliament during the “wash up process” – it was not given the full scrutiny that it deserved.
This is a piece of legislation that gives potentially unlimited power to unelected officials, and assumes guilt on the part of those accused of copyright infringement. We can expect the industry lobbies to be out in force to roll back our human right to freedom of expression in the name of copyright very, very soon.
Why journalists should listen up
Paul Bradshaw, director of the online journalism MA at Birmingham City University and publisher of the Online Journalism Blog tells me that journalists “should pay very close attention to the DE Act indeed, on a number of areas”.
“Firstly is the power the act gives to block websites based on an accusation of breach of copyright – or that the website is likely to in the future.
“The scope for abuse is clear – the potential to block access to Wikileaks is the most prominent example given. An organisation whose confidential documents have been leaked could apply to have it blocked in the UK (regardless of where it is hosted).
“Although revisions to the act mean there would have to be consultation there doesn’t appear to be any explicit public interest test and a look at how countries like Australia have adopted similar blacklists doesn’t bode well for accountability.
“Secondly, and more practically, the act threatens public wifi – a tremendously useful resource for journalists on the move, and for potential sources and leads.
“Providers of public wifi are still seeking clarity on where they stand legally – in the meantime, fewer companies are going to be willing to take the risk of providing it and falling foul of the law if someone uses it to download something ‘illegal’.
“Finally, there’s the broader issue of monitoring people’s use of the web in such a way that, for instance, would make it easier to trace and unmask whistleblowers and other confidential sources. It gives corporations power without accountability, which any journalist should be concerned about.
There’s still time, says Bradshaw
“On a more positive note, there is still scope to address the weaknesses of the act – and journalists and their sources should familiarise themselves with anonymising software such as Tor which will provide more confidentiality for both themselves and their sources.
Bradshaw says he was disillusioned by the political process that saw the bill passed: “Apart from the detail of the bill itself I found the use of the wash-up a depressing spectacle that further undermined our sense of proper democratic procedure.
“In the debates MPs themselves lined up to say how they were having to vote for a bill they or their constituents didn’t actually support. The role of lobbyists and party whips need to be addressed one way or another and I guess this challenge does that.
He has used his crowdsourcing investigations site, Help Me Investigate, to track the MPs’ performance over the bill and how MPs have responded to constituents’ correspondence over the bill.
“[I]dentikit responses make it difficult to see how much of that correspondence has actually been seen or understood by the MPs themselves.”
What do you think about the Digital Economy Act and its effect on journalism? Please get in touch (judith [at] journalism.co.uk) or leave a comment below.