It’s time to get worried. By way of the digital economy bill, Lord Mandelson means to punish innocent people and limit their right to a fair trial. He means to grant his successors the power to block web content by order, without restriction. His proposals are aimed at restricting copyright infringers, but in reality will damage many people who have never done anything wrong.
The reason for this is as simple as it is unjust. Mandelson and the music companies monitoring copyright infringement can perhaps identify the household, business or cafe where someone is uploading a file, but they cannot identify which person or computer did it. Their answer is to make the internet account holder – the person paying the bill – liable for everyone’s actions. And then, to disconnect the entire household.
Disconnection of whole families is not an acceptable punishment. It is the modern day equivalent of banishment: it will disrupt social lives, education and people’s livelihoods. It is designed to threaten and intimidate, and cow people into behaving, with no regard to the consequences of using the law in such a manner.
Such a blanket approach is likely to bring the law into disrepute, especially once people start experiencing real and undeserved harm.
The digital economy bill is also extremely ill-defined, leaving many crucial decisions to future codes of practice and statutory instruments. In other words, members of parliament won’t really know exactly what they’re voting for. The Joint Committee on Human Rights politely explained that:
“We do not believe that such a skeletal approach to powers which engage human rights is appropriate. There is potential for these powers to be applied in a disproportionate manner which could lead to a breach of internet users’ rights to respect for correspondence and freedom of expression.”
This power will also make it hard for universities, bars and cafes to share their internet, and will mean whenever one person is punished for copyright infringement, a number of people will also be punished. As a result, organisations as diverse as the British Library and the Federation of Small Businesses are getting worried.
Last, but hardly least, Section 11 grants Mandelson’s successors the right to block web content. The power isn’t given scope. Liberty warns that:
“The secretary of state could for example order that those accessing websites that fit a particular criteria be cut off – for example, political or religious websites considered to be extreme. It takes little imagination to envisage where such a power could lead. What has been described as a power to cut off illegal filesharers is in fact better described as a power to cut off internet access for whomever the secretary of state sees fit.”
Liberty points to the misapplication of other widely drafted powers, including Section 44 stop and search powers.
The digital economy bill is a very bad piece of legislation. Mandelson has chosen to end his ministerial career with an outright attack on our rights, acting in defence of big businesses’ supposed right to threaten and intimidate.
This is urgent. Hardly anybody thinks this bill is a good idea – outside of the music and film lobbies; not even most musicians I have spoken to. But politicians need to hear us much more loudly if they are going to react.