Britain’s digital dilemma

Written for Angalossy, 28 May 2010

Superfast broadband for everyone in Britain. That’s one of the main long-term goals of the Digital Economy Act 2010. Sounds attractive, doesn’t it? Especially – you’d think – for people who make their living online. More people with broadband means a bigger audience and more customers, right?

Cory Doctorow, a novelist and copyright reform campaigner, confesses that his “whole life revolves around the digital economy”. So why did he attack the Digital Economy Act in the Guardian, claiming it would “cripple Britain’s internet” and establish “an unprecedented realm of web censorship”?

Jim Killock is the executive director of the Open Rights Group (ORG), a pressure group defending our online freedoms. What made him call the Act – then the Digital Economy Bill – an “attempt … to hijack our rights”?

And what made over 5,000 Twitter users declare, “I choose not to recognise the UK’s Digital Economy Bill,” all within the same 24 hours?

How about the fact that the Act is poorly worded, ethically dodgy and ultimately self-sabotaging?

Supposedly the point of it is to prepare Britain for a digital future. As well as the “superfast broadband for all” thing, it’s supposed to drag our outdated copyright law kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

In places it even succeeds. Before the Act passed, libraries could (in theory) be charged with copyright theft for lending out digital audiobooks and ebooks. The law didn’t hate libraries, it just didn’t understand ebooks. Clause 43 of the Digital Economy Act protects libraries from being unfairly prosecuted in this way. So far, so good.

But not enough of the Act is like clause 43.

As well as stopping copyright holders from attacking innocent librarians, the Act aims to help them find and prosecute the real offenders. Sounds fair. But to achieve this the Act places a new set of “obligations” on anyone providing internet access – from big providers like BT to small cafes offering free WiFi.

The obligations include disclosing certain details about their customers to inquisitive copyright holders, and disconnecting anyone accused of repeated copyright violation. Providers that don’t comply can be fined up to £250,000. Many small WiFi operators just aren’t able to comply. They don’t have the equipment. Their only option is to stop providing WiFi.

So much for improving people’s access to broadband.

Most worryingly, if a copyright holder finds out – using their new powers – that your internet connection has been used to steal their intellectual property, you can be immediately disconnected from the internet and fined up to £50,000. Someone else might have done the deed using your connection, but it’s not up to your accuser to prove your guilt – it’s up to you to prove your innocence, and appealing costs money you may not have.

So much for modernising copyright law.

“People’s rights are at stake,” said ORG’s Jim Killock. The Act, he added, “doesn’t require any test of evidence before harsh punishments are imposed … No punishment should take place without a trial.”

All of which is why the government had to play dirty to get the Act past Parliament.

Friday 9 April 2010 was a good day to pass bad law. Gordon Brown had called a general election, but the Queen hadn’t yet dissolved his Parliament, casting Whitehall into a limbo known as the wash-up. During the wash-up, everything Parliament was debating when the election was called is rushed to a vote without the usual cross-examination.

The Digital Economy Bill would never have survived a proper debate. It would have been dissected, reworded, maybe even quashed altogether. Instead, on Friday 9 April, it received Royal Assent and became the Digital Economy Act 2010.

Maybe five years ago the government would have got away with it. Now, though, it’s much harder to hide this kind of thing from us. The power to discover, investigate and fight unjust law is at our fingertips, in our phones, and pulsing invisibly through the air all around us. Internet access was essential to the fight against the Act. In fact, the fight proves that internet access is fast becoming essential to modern democracy.

In a weird way, the Act has actually justified its own existence. It aimed to give everyone equal access to digital services. It botched that pretty badly, so people used digital services to research it and campaign against it – making a strong case for equal access to digital services.

Clearly we need a Digital Economy Act – just not this Digital Economy Act.

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