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The digital economy bill: old solutions to new problems

Posted by Danny Whatmough on 28th April 2010

This month the government shoehorned its controversial digital economy bill onto the statute books, during the pre-election wash-up period. The government’s bill was supported by the Conservatives and only opposed by the Liberal Democrats and a handful of rogue Labour MPs (including Twitter-politico-guru Tom Watson).

Whilst the bill itself is wide-ranging, the most controversial element surrounds the issue of illegal file-sharing. Under the terms of the bill, ISPs will be required to send letters to copyright infringers (on notification by copyright holders) and, as a last resort, terminate their internet connection.  This upholds copyright law and firmly backs the interests of the music and film industries, but does so at the expense of the public and the ISPs, who will have to become copyright enforcers; many are already saying they will ignore such pressures.

The problem with this aspect of the bill is that it punishes the owner of the internet account rather than the illegal filesharer. Not only that, but those serial and repeat offenders will quickly and easily develop work arounds. The people that will be affected will be those who don’t know that illegal activity is happening on their account – parents, small businesses, hotels etc. Could this even spell the end of free Wifi?

I’m sure that lobbying by the music and film industries has been intense leading up to the reading of this bill, on both sides of the house, but it does seem as though there is general confusion about how the most controversial parts of the act will – and whether they actually can –  work in practice.

There is a more fundamental issue here. This bill tries to enforce old methods to solve problems created by new technologies. Rather than lobbying for unworkable approaches, the music and film industry should be looking at new solutions to these new problems.

There is no quick fix here. Filesharing is increasingly easy to do, but cutting internet connections off isn’t going to stop it happening. The music industry makes little money from streaming services such as Spotify, but machete-like attacks will never solve the problems that publishers face. And the government has been weak in the way it has handled this issue and has bowed to the pressure.

I’m not overly worried about the music and film industry. It has always been thus; disruptive technologies come and the more staid industries they affect react with sound and fury but, in the end, find new and better ways of coping and thriving. There are parallels here for example with the effect of the internet on journalism and even the PR industry.

My main beef here is with the Labour and Conservative politicians who failed to give this bill the proper consideration and debate it deserved and their weak attempts to satisfy the power behind the throne. The sad truth is that no one will benefit from this legislation, but ordinary law-abiding citizens may well lose out – is that really how we want to build the digital economy of the future?

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