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Opposition to digital economy bill grows

Government’s proposed ‘three strikes’ rule would damage business, say hotels and public institutions

Charles Arthur

Opposition to the government’s digital economy bill has increased sharply, with strong criticism in the House of Lords for its failure to offer “due judicial process” to people accused of illicit filesharing under the proposed “three strikes” rules of the bill.

Outside parliament, hotels and educators have complained that the bill also endangers their businesses and provision of the internet to the public because of its insistence that organisations providing net access should be liable for the actions of their customers.

The digital economy bill, which is being sponsored by Lord Mandelson through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is a broad-ranging bill covering digital spectrum, greater powers for Ofcom, legislation over copyright infringement via the net, and the enabling of better access nationwide to faster internet connections.

The bill proposes a “three strikes” rule which would mean that persistent copyright breaches would be lead to disconnection from the internet. The aim is to reduce illlicit filesharing by 70%. But in a letter (PDF) to Lord Puttnam, representatives from institutions such as the University of London, British Library and the Imperial War Museum, said: “Because public institutions often provide internet access to hundreds or thousands of individual users, the complexity of our position in relation to copyright infringements must be taken into consideration.”

It says that the bill is unclear about the role of “intermediaries” such as libraries in the bill.

The letter added: “If this is not done, a public institution such as a library, school or university’s internet connection as a whole could be jeopardised, resulting in loss of internet access to large sections of the public, particularly the 15 million citizens without an internet connection at home.”

Meanwhile, the British Hospitality Association (BHA), which represents thousands of hotel, catering and leisure establishments, worries that the requirement in the bill for hotels to provide guest details to an internet service provider (ISP) where copyright infringement is alleged could be impossible in some cases – and that hotels might be disconnected if guests are persistently infringing copyright.

Disconnection would endanger a hotel’s business which the BHA said would be a “grossly unfair consequence” of a guest’s action.

“If it is passed in its present form, the difficulties of applying this bill to the hospitality industry, with its transient profile, appear not to have been considered,” said Martin Couchman, deputy chief executive of the BHA.

The Lords’ Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) notes in a report published on Friday (PDF) that “at the moment the Bill defines a process of appeals with no presumption of innocence” and that “[this] process will be applied irrespective of the sanction or evidence.”

That, they say, goes against natural justice, which should start with the presumption of innocence and the onus on the prosecution to prove guilt. “In the particular case of disconnection – which is a severe punishment – the need for a prior hearing based on an innocence presumption is unquestionably essential,” the commitee writes.

The Open Rights Group, an advocacy group, is backing the industry groups’ call for a guarantee that they will not become victims of the new legislation – as well as other venues in similar positions – and encouraging more people to protest at the provisions of the bill.

Jim Killock, ORG director, posted on its website: “The situation is exactly parallel for cafés, bars and hotels, as well as community centres: if you are involved in any of these you should make your views known to the front bench teams now.”

TalkTalk, one of the three largest broadband providers in the UK, has criticised the bill on the basis that it assumes guilt, and is unworkable in practice.

In November, soon after the bill was originally published, Lilian Edwards, professor of internet law at Sheffield University, pointed out that the bill, as currently set up, threatens the British Library with its public Wi-Fi access, with potentially swingeing fines:

“The [British Library] is not set up to be a forensic investigator; obliging it to act as one will be a fantastically resource intensive exercise for a public body providing a free service. There is also an issue of privacy and anonymity, something academic researchers are often touchy about. And again, if the BL refuse to comply – or more likely, simply says it can’t – it is, at least in theory, subject to a fine up to £250,000.”

Whether that possibility applies has not yet been clarified in the bill.

However it is unclear whether it will succeed in passing through parliament, given the limited time left before the election must occur, and the amount of opposition that it is attracting from groups inside and outside parliament.

View the original article at Guardian

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