Digital Economy Bill Should Wait For Next Government, Say Liberal Democrats
30 March 2010
Liberal Democrats say Digital Economy bill should wait for next government
By Charles Arthur
Controversial bill should not be pushed through at tail-end of Parliament, says chief whip as government pushes new clause
Protestors at Parliament objecting to the provisions of the Digital Economy bill
The Liberal Democrats have called for the Digital Economy bill to be scrapped and re-introduced afresh in the next Parliament, and say they will oppose its rushed passage if, as expected, it is speeded through to become law in the "wash-up" ahead of a general election.
Paul Burstow, the Liberal Democrat chief whip, told the Guardian that although the party's opposition might not be enough on its own to prevent the bill from passing, he hoped that the arguments being put forward - that the issues needed more debate than has been possible - might sway one of the other parties into delaying its passage.
"During the negotiation and discussion in the wash-up we will make it clear that we think that it isn't a suitable way to deal with the issues remaining such as site blocking," Burstow said. "We will put amendments down and make the case and hope that the government and the Conservatives will agree that it shouldn't proceed at this stage," Burstow said.
The bill has proved controversial principally because it would require internet service providers (ISPs)
to monitor internet connections provide details in cases of alleged copyright infringement, and the powers that it gives to "copyright holders" - expected mainly to be record labels and film companies - to lay accusations against people who might then see their internet connection suspended without proof of wrongdoing. It also contains provisions that could lead to sites which are "mostly infringing" of copyright being blocked by ISPs. That could mean that a site such as Wikileaks, which acts as a conduit for documents leaked anonymously by whistleblowers, would vanish from the internet as seen in Britain.
On Tuesday night the government published a new clause 18 for the bill to replace one which has raised the ire of lobbying groups. The key difference from the previous clause appears to be that the secretary of state for business would have the final say on whether an internet site could be blocked.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills says of the addition: "the new clause sets out to achieve the main aims of the original clause 18, but with some new safeguards:
"The new clause is a legally enforceable version of the clause inserted by the Opposition, with additional safeguards:
"It provides for a limited power to propose regulations in the future. The regulations would allow copyright owners to apply for court injunctions. These injunctions would require ISPs (or other service providers) to block access to specified internet locations providing access to copyright infringing material;
"The safeguards are extensive, including provisions on consultation, threshold and proportionality, Parliamentary accountability, legitimate use of websites, freedom of speech, and ensuring due court process."
Hundreds of people protested outside Parliament last week over those provisions of the bill. The Open Rights Group has also been critical of the amount of time that has been devoted to debating it: while it has had three readings in the House of Lords, including a committee stage, it has had only one reading in the Commons, and if it proceeds to the "wash-up" it will not receive a detailed line-by-line examination in committee. Instead, it would be pushed through with the minimum of debate.
The bill's second reading in the Commons is scheduled for Tuesday 6 April, when Gordon Brown is also expected to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament ahead of a general election on 6 May. That would trigger the fast-track "wash-up" where legislation that has passed through one house of Parliament will be considered by all the main party whips for royal assent. Typically, bills required to keep the process of government going - such as the Budget or finance bills - are nodded through in a truncated third reading.
Doing that with the Digital Economy bill could prove more controversial if the government puts it into the wash-up, says Burstow. "We will vote against it at the third reading," he said.
Burstow said that discussions about the parties' positions occur all the time as part of Parliamentary business. "The question will be whether these concerns are shared by one of the other parties." Such opposition would constitute an obstacle to the bill, rather than a roadblock, he acknowledged. "We're putting down some markers."
"It might be that this is legislation where there's recognition that it need more time to be properly scrutinised, which isn't possible this close to a general election," Burstow said.
The question of whether the bill has had sufficient debate has also caused a row between the BPI, which represents record labels and backs the bill, and the Open Rights Group, which opposes its strictures on internet users and says it would choke off services such as public Wi-Fi. The ORG says that the bill has had insufficient debating time in the Commons, and has challenged the BPI to say whether it thinks the time allotted - expected to amount to about 90 minutes - is sufficient for a bill of this importance. The BPI says that the time allotted is a matter for the party managers - but has declined so far to answer queries raised by Guardian columnist Cory Doctorow on whether it thinks the time allotted under the present timetable is sufficient.
Thousands of letters have been sent to MPs by constituents via the 38 Degrees site complaining at the lack of debate of the bill.
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