Digital Economy Bill: Passed 189-47 With Piracy Measure Intact

Irate MPs passed a cut-down, sick-looking version of the Digital Economy Bill Wednesday night by 189 votes to 47 – lacking several key proposals but retaining the centrepiece provision for ISPs to act against unauthorised downloaders of copyrighted content.

— The government withdrew clauses that would have extended licensing of orphaned copyright works, let Ofcom appoint regional news providers on the Channel 3 TV network and instructed Ofcom to promote investment in networks and public service content.

— It also placed in to an alternative parliamentary process, which would require specific parliamentary approval but which will have to be executed after the May 6 election, a clause that would see ISPs, at copyright holders’ behest, block access to online services deemed to breach copyright.

— The universal service commitment of nationwide 2Mbps broadband infrastructure appears to have vanished, though finance minister Stephen Timms said the ambition is retained: “Broadband Delivery UK is working on that at the moment. It will be in the Finance Bill that will be introduced shortly after the election.”

— And the government scrapped plans, in the separate Finance Bill, for a £0.50-a-month levy on phone land lines to create an Independent Next Generation Fund, a stash any telco could bid for to part-subsidise the roll-out of truly high-speed broadband.

The remaining Digital Economy Bill is now likely to get Royal Assent at parliament’s dissolution on Monday – despite widespread concern voiced tonight by MPs dismayed that they had just hours to debate it.

In the key remaining provision – overseen by an Ofcom code – ISPs will, on copyright holders’ instruction, notify subscribers by letter as to their alleged transgression. If alleged infringers then persist, the ISP would sanction against them “technical measures” like speed blocks, bandwidth shaping, account suspension or other limits. It’s a landmark but, lacking ultimate talk of “disconnection”, it doesn’t go as far as France’s “three strikes” law.

Read our guide to all the bill’s measures »

Heavily lobbied by digital liberties activists, many MPs on Wednesday admitted they don’t understand the proposals, and suspect the measures – rather than reduce piracy – will instead punish downloaders’ parents or public WiFi operators, while abusers find workarounds. Even an MP who suffered piracy of a game he developed called the bill “inappropriate” for limiting internet access.

MPs grumbled that they had insufficient time to debate the bill – indeed, they grumbled over five hours in the Commons on Tuesday and two hours on Wednesday. Several amendments proposed by Labour MP Tom Watson on Wednesday – for example, to limit its scope to P2P services – were derailed by such time-consuming interventions, and mostly were ultimately withdrawn by Watson himself.

MPs are largely supportive of efforts to protect creators’ intellectual property, but the repeated extent of concern they expressed is at odds with the majority on which the bill was passed.

After being told by music labels in December that a third of piracy occurs on services other than P2P, Lib Dem Lords introduced a measure under which an ISP, upon a court order sought by copyright holders, must block all its subscribers from accessing a website hosting the material. But the government, believing the measure would not be legal on a technicality, took the provision out of the bill and reinserted it as promised in a new clause that would require approval from both houses of parliament – something which cannot take place until after the election.

Shadow culture minister Jeremy Hunt told the Commons on Tuesday: “Anything that becomes law as a result of the wash-up, we reserve the right to review in the event of a Conservative government.”

The government’s withdrawal of the clause which would allow Ofcom to pick and pay multimedia Channel 3 news providers throws the plan for “independently-funded news consortia” (IFNC) in to disarray. The status quo – under which ITV (LSE: ITV) retains an obligation to produce regional news – now looks more likely than operating the recently-named multimedia IFNCs in three pilot regions.