The surprise passing of the Digital Economy Bill last night has caused a big stir. Among other things, the new law will mean that people who persistently download copyrighted material can have their internet connections cut off. If an infringement is made on a Wi-fi connection, the Wi-fi owner will carry the can. Fines of up to £250,000 can be levied on ISPs that fail to co-operate.
By any standards this is a draconian measure, and is bound to have mixed consequences. The authorities tend always to go after the people who are easiest to catch, as it’s less work and looks good in the statistics. On that principle, the hordes of people who download a few songs or the occasional film are going to get clobbered, while the handful of pirates who do it for a living can simply go online under another name. The music and film industries aren’t necessarily going to be left much better off, but the disruption to the country’s communications could have a profoundly negative impact.
These sorts of restrictions are also profoundly antithetical to social media and the whole Web 2.0 project. If people start worrying about copyright, they are going to think twice about sharing stuff online.
The Wi-fi clause is a particular concern. It’s health-and-safety all over again. If there’s a risk attached to providing a service, then better not take the chance!
Some people are trying to look on the bright side. The passage of the bill caught many people by surprise, being sneaked through parliament by Lord Mandy before the recess. But savvy netizens were on the case, and were closely in touch with like-minded MPs via Twitter. Labour MP Tom Watson, a heavy Twitter user, was seen checking his phone during the debate and was probably following the comments being made by supporters using the #dbill hashtag. If politicians can be reached in this way during live debates, the thinking goes, it’s a way for Joe Public to have real influence on the political process.
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