Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Stand up for democracy - debate the bill

Poor, long suffering Simon Hughes has got another letter from me (via the excellent With footnotes. Sorry Simon, I am an academic after all...

Dear Simon Hughes,

First of all I would like to thank you for your continued hard work on behalf of your constituents. I would also like to express my sincere hope that you will request a debate of the Digital Economy Bill when it comes before the commons, rather than letting it go through in the wash-up.

The internet has become an essential tool for the majority British people, and society and the economy has benefited from this. The bill as it stands is deeply flawed, and will have a damaging effect on innovation, business, and people's ability to take part in civil society.

To take one example, many local businesses are at grave risk if this bill goes though. The cafes that offer free wifi on Bermondsey Street will suffer. Unlike large chains, who can afford to outsource their internet services to a large ISP, these cafes will face disconnection if a single customer is alleged to have misused their internet connection.

The small businesses that are the lifeblood of the area could find themselves without internet access, and with no recourse to an appeal, on the basis of a handful of (untested) allegations of copyright infringement. This would effectively put them out of business.

The bill is flawed in a number of ways, including, but not limited to, the following.

The bill assumes that the "bad guys" are easily traced, because there is one user to each internet connection which, if you consider the shared networks you probably use each day you will realise this is completely naive.

There is no provision for due process. Allegations of wrong doing need not be proven and the user will have no right of appeal. Web connections can be used without the owner's knowledge [1].

I also understand that there is an amendment to enable sites hosting copyright material to be taken down. This is a dreadful which emulates the DMCA in the US. The DCMA has had a chilling effect on the fair use of copyright material for the purposes of comment or criticism[2].

Secondly, just because a domain carries infringing material, it does not necessarily mean that the domain owner is the infringer. Websites are sometimes compromised. A recent BBC survey found that many UK university sites were, without the universities' knowledge, hosting sites that sell prescription drugs [3].

I am not excusing the infringement of intellectual property rights. As both an academic computer scientist and a freelance journalist I am aware of the need for creators of works of the mind to protect their livelihood. But there are existing avenues for redress when infringement takes place and this bill is an attempt to shift the costs of enforcement onto ISPs and individuals. At the same time it risks creating an unjust and unworkable set of laws that stifle small business, innovation, and participation in civil society.

I do hope you will press for a debate. The future of British competitiveness in the digital realm depends on it.

Yours sincerely,

Emma Byrne


I'll let you know when he gets back to me - he's usually pretty quick. But then he, notoriously, works very hard.