Digital Economy Bill: Most Lords Support It, But Excessive Powers Draw Suspicion

Lord Mandelson’s controversial Digital Economy Bill may be the devil’s work in the eyes of the anti-graduated response lobby. But, despite some specific objections and proposed additions, it got broad backing during its first proper parliamentary debate on Wednesday.

During the bill’s second reading in the House Of Lords, some lords repeated the concerns of entertainment execs who have informed Mandelson’s account suspension plan. And they parroted some of the many research findings on the extent of illegal downloading. But there were one or interesting rufflings…

Mandelson opened by acknowledging: “Copyright infringement is the market’s way of telling us we need to find new business models.” And, without naming News Corp (NYSE: NWS). he took a clear dig at James Murdoch: “They want to erode commitment to impartiality – to fill British airwaves with more Fox-style news.” Arguing against relaxing regulation, Mandelson’s was a direct reference to Murdoch’s Edinburgh keynote

Lord Fowler (Con, former Daily Express director): Agreed with principle that IP should be safeguarded to protect creative-industries jobs. Said illegal downloading is “theft”, “legal business aims are (being) undermined”. Backed the bill’s “step-by-step approach” (graduated-response). Acknowledged “we’ve all been inundated with ‘advice’ on this matter” by opponents, but is allying with the bill’s author.

Lord Razzall (Lib Dem): “General welcome” from his benches because “infringement clearly a major problem”: “(It) is theft – we have no sympathy for the suggestion that all information on the internet should be free – although that’s a position many 17-year-olds will take, we don’t think that’s the correct position to take.” Razzall does reject clause Clause 17, giving the minister wide-ranging powers to go on amending legislation, and “the devil will lie in the detail”.

Lord Birt (ex BBC DG, board member at Paypal, EMI and Eutelsat): Says the bill “does not inaugurate a snoopers’ charter” … illegal downloading is “the moral equivalent of persistent shoplifting of CDs or DVDs at an HMV (LSE: HMV) store“. Said the IPRED law in Sweden saw piracy drop sharply. But says the bill is “not wide-ranging enough” – wants more provision against online fraud, child sex exploitation and malware: “it’s a step, but we will sooner rather than later aim to make a much bigger step.”

Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch, Bishop of Manchester: Said illegal downloading breaks the commandment “thou shallt not steal“, but wants provision for greater, faster broadband access in remote areas, plus more spectrum reform to guarantee continuing operation of radio microphones and hospital radio stations.

Lord Lucas (Con): Questioned giving govt power to manage failing domain name registrars, wants an amendment guaranteeing 15MHz radio spectrum for emergency services, opposes disconnections and “please can we vote against clause 17?” “This bill has to be very careful to look after the proper interests of citizens. We have always allowed citizens leeway under copyright law – you can lend books to your friends… newspapers are read by many more people that buy them … a reasonable level of sharing between friends and within a small community of sharing so that it doesn’t have to be purchased again”. Criticised entertainment execs’ estimates of losses due to piracy: “They are not the loss, they are the infringement of copyright – it is not at all certain how many of those songs or films would have purchased if people actually had to purchase them … We are not talking about the small creative individual, we are talking about monopolistic industries.” Said record labels that are calling for protection are not, themselves, benevolent to artist: “The creative industry is not known for its kindness to creative people … (Content companies) have been extremely slow to listen to the demands of their consumers – they have had an abusive relationship with them, thinking about how to punish them before how they can serve them better. It has taken them a decade to produce something better than illegal filesharing. They are still slow.”

Baroness Morris (Lab; PRS Foundation trustee): Creators’ choice to charge or not “should be a cornerstone of the digital economy – that doesn’t change. That isn’t part of the revolution that otherwise we’re welcoming … (The copyright issue) should have been addressed years ago. Everyone who could have acted failed to do so. It was almost like the rabbit in the headlines (sic).”

Baroness Buscombe (Con; PCC chairman): “Unless it can be paid for, the quality of our creative works will decline.”

Lord Roberts (Lab): “We must prioritise areas that can’t currently access broadband at all.”

Baroness Miller: Pretty opposed. Warns it’s hard to identify infringers on shared networks.

Lord Whitty (Lab; Consumer Focus chair): Supportive, but opposes disconnections because customers now expect free service: “This law is ultimately not enforceable“: “You are only ever going to scratch the surface” because large-scale copiers will use encryption or other evasion … Technically, it’s not theft .. Even the shoplifter of the DVD enjoys due process.” “Not a penny” will go back to rightsholders; their estimates for lost income are “purely notional”. More legal services like iTunes and Spotify needed, Whitty said.

The bill was introduced to the Lords two weeks ago. It will now go to committee stage for line-by-line examination on January 6, before amendments are included at report stage and a third reading.

Then Commons MPs will do it all over again and the two houses may play ping-pong with the bill if any further changes are sought…