Unless you’ve had me on ‘ignore’ for a month or so (and that includes ‘in-person’), it won’t have escaped your attention that I’ve been going on ad nauseum about the government’s Digital Economy Bill which is an attempt to deal with online copyright, broadband, and all sorts of things. It’s a wide-reaching bill which will affect everyone online in the UK (yes, even you Mum).
I’m not going to go into the actual provisions of the Bill here, because it’s been covered elsewhere. Suffice to say that you, as an Internet subscriber, can be disconnected and prohibited from having an Internet connection without judicial review or trial, simply if you are suspected of infringing copyright. Infringing can be something as simple as unauthorised use of someone’s photo. You can also add ‘blocking websites the Government doesn’t like’ to the mix (Wikileaks was cited as an example in Parliament) – this was withdrawn in the third reading as part of clause 18 but now lives on in clause 1 (thanks ChrisE for clarifying that – Ed.).
As a result of the impending election, it was consigned to ‘wash-up’ – that’s the bit of the Parliamentary session where they try to get unfinished business done before they all go back to their constituencies and make promises they can’t keep. Last night the Bill had its third reading and amid protest it went through (although in a small victory Clause 43 was removed, that’s the ‘orphan works’ bill which would stuff photographers, there’s an AP article here about it). I am reliably informed it was a three-line whip, although there were a few rebels which I’ll discuss in a moment.
While all this was happening I was online watching both the second and third readings on BBC Democracy Live with a copy of the Register of Members Interests in another window to cross-reference. There was of course a substantial discussion on Twitter resulting in the #debill tag ‘trending’ worldwide (my own contributions can be read here if you wade through my feed). What was interesting was that there were politicians actually in the Chamber reading Twitter and responding to questions and suggestions – the most prominent being Tom Watson MP (Lab) (“First time i’ve ever broken the whip in the chamber. I feel physically sick.”) and Dr Evan Harris (Lib Dem) – possibly the first example of directly influencing a debate through online participation?
After the second reading on Tuesday night, Mo put together an open letter which quickly gathered signatories. At least Peter Luff had the dignity to respond, although I don’t agree with his stance at all.
The list of who finally voted against the bill is here. Kudos to the MPs who went against the whip and did their own research – I found myself agreeing with John Redwood MP on Tuesday night in the second reading, quite a bizarre feeling, that!
For my part I wrote to my MP twice – Ed Balls MP (Lab). He didn’t reply, not even an acknowledgement – although in discussion with local activists this is apparently unsurprising. I hear others wrote to their MPs and received a stock ‘I’m concerned and will vote no’ response – then they didn’t even show up for the vote. A few sent stock responses towing the party line (yes I’m looking at you Yvette Cooper MP).
I am not protesting that legislation isn’t needed; I am not protesting that there are Bad Things which need addressing; I am not saying we don’t need some sort of Parliamentary intervention to ensure that the UK’s “digital economy” is protected. What I am saying is that it is a very very complex technical issue which MPs by their own admission did not understand, and which amid protest was forced through without proper scrutiny in a deal which (reading between the lines) was probably done against the Electoral Reform Bill. Over 20,000 of the electorate (many of them the creatives this is supposed to protect) were protesting – that should mean that it gets a better reading than a rushed couple of debates. Nor am I singling out any political party – you were all railroaded by your party whips (mind, Twitter user @holizz points out that only 5 people outside of Labour voted in favour of the bill).
(A sidenote: those of you who work in politics and have repeatedly bleated at me that ‘the system works’ and ‘it’s democracy’ can take your copy of Hansard, roll it up nice and tight, and stuff it up your arse.)
So, we see what happens next; it’s back to the Lords and then I suppose Royal Assent. I have it on pretty good authority though that there is already talk of a Version 2 of the Bill, so the battle may be lost but the war goes on.
The full amended text of the Bill isn’t available yet, but once it is I’ll link to it from here. Trefor’s blog also has some good comment if you want to read more, and if you’re of the opinion that ‘because they weren’t debating the MPs don’t care’ then you should also read Mark Goodge’s diatribe An Empty Chamber Is Not An Empty Mind. Enjoy.
Update: As promised, Guardian Tech have posted A Quick Guide To The Digital Economy Bill – useful reading if you don’t know what it’s on about.