Saturday, April 10, 2010

IP not Idiot Proof: Britain passes bad Digital Economy Bill

The hilarity of yesterday’s news was provided by Boing Boing’ Cory Doctorow who revealed that the Minister for Digital Britain did not know what an IP address is. In a letter purporting to be from the Minister (Neither Boing Boing nor the Financial Times were certain it was genuine and Timms did not respond to a direct enquiry on the matter by Woolly Days) to a fellow Labour MP, an IP address is called an “Intellectual Property” address rather than a “Internet Protocol” address. Such a mistake is forgivable for lay people, but not only is Timms the relevant minister who should know better, but he has also has been responsible for a piece of legislation called the Digital Economy Bill that many see has seriously set back the cause of a free and open Internet. In this context the error takes on a whole new meaning.

The Digital Economy Bill was one of the last acts of the current British Government which they pushed through late on Wednesday night. It may have many long-lasting and unintended consequences. The bill is an extraordinarily wide-ranging piece of legislation that affects communications regulator Ofcom, Channel Four, Commercial TV, spectrum regulation, broadband, digital radio, video games, intellectual property (not Internet Protocol!) and internet domain registrations. MPs had just a few hours to digest its lengthy contents. All of it needs scrutiny but it is its recommendation on illegal downloads that has generated the most controversy.

As Gigaom says the bill tackles copyright infringement by forcing ISPs to cut off persistent file-sharers. In their rush to pass the legislation, it is looking leaky and undercooked and is likely to have many negative implications for digital freedoms. Among the concerns are it could have the unintended consequence of forcing libraries and cafes to stop offering free Wi-Fi and worryingly it could also give the government the power to block sites like Wikileaks, on the excuse it hosts copyright-infringing material. By tackling those who download copyrighted content illegally, the bill also moves to suspend or slow down some web users' connections.

The bill won cross-party support but one of the few active voices in parliament against it was Labour MP Tom Watson. Watson is one of the few MPs who understands what the digital economy actually means, and in his speech against it he described it as a mass (or mess) of “unintended consequences”. As Mike Butcher wrote in the Telegraph those consequences include potentially huge legal bills for Internet start-ups, and everyday parents who have little idea how their download limit is being used up by “teenage children, neighbours, or even someone parked outside their house.”

Another dissenter in parliament, Tory MP William Cash, made the point the impact and implications of the Bill's many clauses are sophisticated and not immediately obvious, and supporting it should not be a given. "The Bill should not be rushed through," he said. "It is not the Dangerous Dogs Bill; it is a very different type of Bill."

But TechCrunch Europe have seen it all before. They emotively used a Churchill pre-war speech as a metaphor for what is happening now “The stations of uncensored expression are closing down,” said Churchill about Nazi dominated Europe in 1938 and TechCrunch argued these stations were shutting down again today. Just as in the proposed Australian legislation the onus will be on ISPs to police the new laws. TechCrunch says ISPs will have to send letters to their subscribers who have been linked to copyright infringements and, after these warnings, suspend their accounts. Copyright holders will be able to apply for a court order to gain access to the names and addresses of serious infringers and take legal action.

Similar to the battle here in Australia over the Government’s proposed Internet censorship plans, the British digital economy bill has lined up the tech savvy and civil libertarians on one side and mainstream politicians on the other. As in Australia, neither side has covered themselves in glory in an issue that does not fully resonate with the majority of the electorate. Politicians, with too many other issues to deal with, allow themselves to be swayed by party whips, vested interests and industry lobby groups. The tech savvy’s mobilisation of platforms such as Twitter starts by being a good focus of anger but ends up being a frustrated and vitriolic echo chamber of like-minded views. Politicians know these views fail to cut through to suburbia and the issues affecting marginal electorates. Those fighting the #nocleanfeed war in Australia should closely examine the way the Digital Economy Bill played out. An antipodean repeat is on the cards.

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