Monday, 29 March 2010

Democracy and the Digital Economy Bill #debill

I've been following the progress of the Digital Economy Bill with interest . A couple of months ago I was one of the signatories of a letter to the Lords who were considering it at the time. A couple of weeks ago I was away, with little access to the internet, but was horrified by how it was being forced through and although couldn't blog, linked to someone who did it really well.

I remain horrified - the bill is bad enough, but the process of "wash-up" - when bills are not debated properly but rushed through as parliament is dissolved by a series of trade offs between the parties - is not something I've taken much notice of before. Harriet Harman has announced that the Digital Economy Bill will receive its second reading on 6 April, the day that parliament is expected to be dissolved - effectively pushing it into wash-up. This should not happen to this bill - it needs proper debate. It will affect all of us who provide internet services, and could seriously affect access to free wifi. Government is being lobbied by the rights holders, including the BPI, and seems not to be listening to the many thousands of people who are protesting.

I've written to my MP - letter reproduced below (thanks to Peter Tinson of UCISA for most of the drafting) - but have yet to receive a response. I await it with interest, but am not hopeful.

I am writing to you as one of your constituents, as Director of Computing Services at the University of Sheffield, and as Chair of UCISA (University and Colleges Information Systems Association). I am extremely concerned that the Digital Economy Bill, which has implications for all of us, especially those of us providing IT Services, has not been properly debated and will be rushed through as part of the "wash up" process.

I have been involved in lobbying over parts of the bill, and was one of the signatories to an open letter to members of the House of Lords regarding the provisions for copyright infringement and public access to the internet via institutions:

The issue was first raised in 2008 and resurfaced in the draft Digital Britain paper presented in 2009. In each case we have pointed out that the proposals as drafted were not clear about what was meant by the term Internet Service Provider and that any legislation would need to be set this out clearly in order to prevent universities and colleges from being inadvertently caught by the legislation. The responses also highlighted the fact that most, if not all, institutions enforce codes of conduct or regulations for computer and network use which explicitly link breach of copyright with disciplinary action. The UCISA Model regulations for the use of institutional IT facilities and systems, on which many institutional codes of conduct are based, also highlights breach of copyright as a forbidden activity.

It appeared from the final draft of the Digital Britain paper that the resulting legislation would clearly refer to commercial internet service providers, highlighting the commercial providers as being responsible for working with the rights providers to identify individual customers responsible for breaches of copyright. However, the Bill as presented to Parliament is so poorly worded that, not only will universities and colleges be encompassed by the legislation, individual institutions may be treated differently.

UCISA recognises the need to tackle online copyright infringement; as mentioned above our model regulations specifically highlight breach of copyright as a forbidden activity. Many institutions have used our model regulations as the basis for their own institutional codes of conduct which are considered part of student regulations or employees’ terms and conditions. Universities and colleges are quick to respond to any complaints by rights holders of breaches of copyright with content removed and disciplinary action invoked. It is a system that works well. The likelihood of institutions having different statuses means that rights holders will have to use different infringement reporting systems for each institutions, causing considerable disruption to the existing effective process. Further the Bill poses a risk to the availability of resources to the public through universities, colleges and other public bodies which forms a key part of the strategy outlined in the Digital Britain paper.

I am concerned that what is a poorly worded piece of legislation will be rushed through Parliament and pass into law without adequate debate. I am concerned that the sector will be burdened with additional costs in order to comply with the legislation which are unnecessary because an effective system already exists in higher and further education institutions to the benefit of those institutions and rights holders alike. I would encourage you to work to ensure that the Bill is properly debated in the House, or preferably deferred until after the election when greater consideration of its impact can be given and when a clearer piece of legislation may be drafted.


ChrisW said...

I wrote to my MP, I kept it brief but it was an entirely original letter rather than a template.

Although I have concerns with the bill itself I was more concerned with how it has been pushed through; I also wasn't familiar with "wash-up", something my other half can confirm ;-)

I received a reply fairly promptly from my MP (David Blunkett) but the response didn't really answer my concerns and had the feeling of a standard response. Bit disappointing and it is quite likely to influence my voting - or perhaps lack of it. :-(

A.M. Doherty said...

I hope that you receive a response to your well-put statements.

I received a letter from my MP just this morning, in response to my protests - crux of the response is that my concerns have been expressed to the relevant Minister.

My MP is a party whip. Roll on 1530.