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Digital Economy Bill progresses through controversial legislative 'wash up'

The Digital Economy Bill is likely to be passed into law in an accelerated legislative process ahead of the just-announced general election. The Opposition will oppose just three parts of it in negotiations today.07 Apr 2010

The Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons last night and will be rushed through the committee stage today ahead of a third and final reading tonight and a final approval by the House of Lords.

The Government yesterday announced that there would be a general election on 6th May, meaning that any legislation still pending must be passed in a shortened and accelerated process called the 'wash up'.

This process depends on the support of the Opposition, because it can only be used in relation to unopposed legislation. Conservative culture spokesman Jeremy Hunt told the Commons yesterday that it would back almost all of the Bill, only seeking changes to clauses on orphan works, regional broadcasting and Ofcom's powers.

The Opposition said that it would back the Bill's controversial provisions on the termination of internet connections used by people suspected of engaging in online copyright infringement.

Those plans have been attacked by digital rights groups, academics and some MPs as being overly punitive and Business Secretary Lord Mandelson has been accused of putting the interests of major copyright-dependent companies ahead of those of citizens.

MP Austin Mitchell read out to the House of Commons quoted objections from Charles Stross to the Bill to demonstrate that it was not even supported by all who earn their living by exploiting copyright.

"I'm a self-employed media professional working in the entertainment industry, who earns his living by creating intellectual property and licensing it to publishers. You might think I'd be one of the beneficiaries of this proposed law: but you'd be dead wrong," said Stross, according to Mitchell. "This is going to cripple the long tail of the creative sector – it plays entirely to the interests of large corporate media organizations."

"Want to publish a piece of shareware over BitTorrent? You're [in trouble] … all it takes is a malicious accusation and your ISP (who are required to snitch on p2p users on pain of heavy fines) will be ordered to cut off the internet connection to you and everyone else in your household."

"Nobody can be happy with legislation passed on that basis," said Mitchell.

Throughout last night's five-and-a-half hour debate there was strong criticism from Government, Opposition and Liberal Democrat benches about the hasty passage of such an important Bill through Parliament.

"[The Bill] could have been massively improved if there had been more scrutiny at the committee stage," said Hunt. "Why is it debate on such a critically important bill has been left to the last minute?"

"There are parts of the bill that we will reluctantly let through. Digital piracy is a very real problem for our creative industries," he said.

The Conservatives, though, would not accept the plan to publicly fund regional news on ITV. They said they would seek to have plans to invest in pilot news consortiums around the country removed from the Bill.

The Bill itself and the way it has been debated have been opposed by digital rights pressure group Open Rights Group. "This Bill is the victim of one of the worst lobbying scandals of this Parliament," said its director Jim Killock. "Parliamentary scrutiny must be applied. The sheer level of interference from lobbyists demands MPs do their job – or drop the controversial clauses."

“Over 20,000 voters have written to MPs and raised funds for adverts, because we know disconnection of families for allegations of copyright infringement is a draconian punishment, and need to be fully debated, not rammed through at the last minute," he said.

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