Should We Fear the Digital Economy Bill?

In Hannah's Perspective by Hannah Johnson

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By Hannah Johnson

Yesterday, the UK passed a controversial piece of legislation called the Digital Economy Bill. The bill is intended to protect copyright holders against piracy and illegal filesharing online. While many companies would like to combat and stop online piracy of intellectual property, protests against the bill have grown steadily since it was introduced last year.

The decision in the House of Commons last night was followed closely by Twitter users under the hashtag #DEbill.

Under the Digital Economy Bill, ISPs (Internet service providers) can block Web sites and suspend Internet connections of users based solely on accusations of copyright infringement.

As quoted in the Guardian, Clause 8 of the bill allows the Secretary of State for business to block “a location on the internet which the court is satisfied has been, is being or is likely to be used for or in connection with an activity that infringes copyright.”

This indicates that no proof of copyright infringement must exist in order to block a Web site, just an assumption that a violation has occurred or will occur. Such broad language means that Web sites large and small, from YouTube to your next door neighbor’s blog, are in danger if accusations of copyright infringement are made against them.

The bill also holds Internet connection owners accountable for activity that occurs on their connections. Not only can an individual’s Internet account be suspended, but now, the owners of wi-fi hotspots are accountable for what people do while using their connections. Cafés, libraries, and universities all fall under this category.

Without any obligation to provide proof of wrongdoing, the bill creates the potential for abuse and…dare we say it…censorship.

Mike Butcher, the editor of Techcrunch Europe wrote a piece about the Digital Economy Bill in which he asserts that it will breed “a nightmare of unintended consequences.”

The other side of the argument is, of course, that entertainment companies and copyright holders lose billions of dollars due to online piracy and illegal filesharing of copyrighted works. Some kind of system needs to be put in place that allows copyright holders to effectively combat piracy. According the Publishers Weekly, an online monitoring service called Attributor estimates the worth of pirated books to be about $2.8 billion.

Support for the bill comes from record, film, and publishing companies as well as individual authors, artists, and musicians. Among those in support of the bill, the Guardian Technology Blog quoted Publishers Association chief executive Simon Juden as saying:

The cross-party support for the peer-to-peer proposals in the Digital Economy Bill proves just how important these measures are. High-quality content needs to be monetised and protected if its production is to be sustainable. As publishers are increasingly investing in the creation and delivery of digital content, so the measures passed today will help to secure that investment. We look forward to working with Government, Ofcom and ISPs on implementing the legislation.

People and companies that make a living on content and intellectual property have a very real need to protect their investments and creative assets. Measures such as DRM and ongoing legal battles don’t seem to have slowed down online piracy.

But are such extreme measures like the Digital Economy Bill really necessary to fight copyright infringement? Should the British government be allowed limitless power to block Web sites and Internet users?

About the Author

Hannah Johnson

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Hannah Johnson is the publisher of international book industry magazine Publishing Perspectives, which provides daily information and news about book markets around the world. In addition to building partnerships with international cultural and trade organizations, she works with the Frankfurt Book Fair to organize and support a number of its overseas initiatives. Hannah has also worked as the managing editor for an online media company, The Hooch Life, focused on craft distillers and cocktail experts. Prior to that, she worked as a project manager for the Frankfurt Book Fair’s New York office, managing various business and marketing activities.