Doublethink – The Digital Economy Bill against the digital economy

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Doublethink – The Digital Economy Bill Against The UK's Digital Economy

In 1938 Winston Churchill made a radio speech which was broadcast to America, describing what was happening as Nazi forces spread across Europe.

“The stations of uncensored expression are closing down; the lights are going out; but there is still time for those to whom freedom and parliamentary government mean something, to consult together.”

Perhaps if he’d been around today and au fait with the Internet he might have used the same phrase to describe what is going on in legislatures across Europe.

Tonight the UK Labour governement, together with the Conservative arty, forced through the controversial Digital Economy Bill. The Bill now gets a ‘third reading’ in the House of Lords, which means it is almost certain to become law. The government did a deal with the Conservative leadership, which got a number of provisions it didn’t like removed. In other words, it was, to use an old British phrase, a “stitch up.” [Update 9 April: The Digital Economy Bill has received Royal Assent and is now law].

The law means that ISPs will have to send letters to their subscribers who have been linked to copyright infringements and, after these warnings, suspend their accounts. Copyright holders will be able to apply for a court order to gain access to the names and addresses of serious infringers and take legal action. There are one or two sops – some restrictions won’t come into force for a year and the next Parliament will be able to study the most contentious aspects of the bill. These are largely meaningless as everything can change. Remember, there is a now a general election on and who knows what the next government will look like.

Despite opposition from the Liberal Democrats and a handful of Labour MPs, notably long time Internet savvy MP Tom Watson, the government won two crucial votes allowing it to control the content of the bill and its further progress.

It won by 189 votes to 47. These numbers give a false impression of the amount of debate this crucial Bill got. Barely 20 MPs actually debated the Bill, the rest just filled in to vote, told by their ‘whips’ which direction in which to trudge through the voting halls.

The government did remove the controversial Clause 18, which would have given it unprecedented powers to shut down web sites which it might deem to give access to copyrighted material. However, this was replaced it with an amendment to Clause 8 which lets the Secretary of State for business order a block on “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”. So, in other words, more or less the same thing as the old Clause 18, just via a judge.

Yes, that means the UK government could decide to block Wikileaks, which carries copyrighted work.

As one MP pointed out, the words “likely to be used” might infer that a site could be blocked if it looked like it might intend to infringe copyright, rather than actually doing so. Ominous huh.

The effect on startups

So, in other words if you were planning on creating a new startup to offer web locker services like Dropbox, you might not want to do that in the UK. That this should happen in what is normally considered to be a sophisticated economy beggars belief.

The law will of course have many “unintended consequences”, as Watson put it in his speech against the bill.

In trying to support the old music industry models and tackle illegal file-sharing, the #DEBill, as it’s known on Twitter, is poised to produce a new culture. That of legal letters from music industry bodies to ISPs, bewildered householders and, no doubt, any number of Internet companies.

In the past the lawyers had to go after the infringers, with actual proof. Now, the holder of the Internet account (Mum, Dad, Grandparents and the small startup that can’t afford the legal fees) will be held to account for what happens over their connection.

Parents who have no idea their teenage children, neighbours, or even someone parked outside their house, has been slurping their WiFi and downloading the latest movies and music, will now be up in court.

During the debate there was a farcical moment when Stephen Timms, the Labour government’s Finance Minister said, with a throw away line, that people could simply password protect their WiFi. Of course, this shows a staggering lack of knowledge of how easy these are to break. More importantly the Bill does not even afford any guaranteed legal protection for people who try to put security measures in place.

A new way for lawyers to create another ambulance chasing industry? How’s that for unintended consequences.

So let’s just rack this up.

• Media regulator Ofcom, say our sources, doesn’t want to enforce this new law and has no idea how it will.

• Twitter is awash with people saying they are going encrypted and will now use a Tor or anonymity network to go online.

• The wave of civil disobedience started within minutes of the Bill being passed. e.g. See

• Legislation based on misconceptions about the cost of file-sharing, when file sharers are already 10 times more likely to pay for songs than those who don’t.

• Spotify, which is providing a free music alternative to file sharing, is actually owned by the record labels which wrote much of this legislation. So on the one hand it bleets about piracy, while on the other forgets to mention it’s giving away music with ads. How many MPs know this?

• And even while the UK is one of the best places in Europe to start an Internet company, if one of your employees goes rogue you’ll be in the frame for it.

All this while more enlightened governments across the planet are starting to talk about Internet access as a human right. How does that sit with withdrawing it without any presumption of innocence?


A further impact will be on the UK’s technology innovators. How would you like to create a startup which involves user generated content that might infringe this new law in some way? Your legal bills might end up being bigger than your actual Internet access bill.

Over 20,000 people have written to their MP arguing that the Digital Economy Bill was so complex it needed more time for scrutiny. People donated to the Open Rights Group for newspaper ads to be taken out. Apparently none of this counted as much as lobbyists from the British Phonographic Industry writing draft after draft of the bill for the government.

But perhaps the greatest unintended consequence will end up being for the music industry itself.

In April last year Sweden’s Internet traffic took a dramatic 30 per cent dip as the country’s new anti-file sharing law came into effect.

Prior to this, Sweden, the home of the Pirate Bay, had been a hotbed of illegal trade in movies and music.

But several months later traffic levels started to surpass the old levels. Consultancy firm Mediavision found that the accessing of illegally shared movies, TV shows and music simply recovered. But there was with one crucial difference. Much of the internet traffic was now encrypted.

In other words, the very laws the entertainment industries had lobbied politicians to pass in order to protect their industry, had created the even bigger headache of untraceable file sharing.

For them, this will be the legacy of the Digital Economy Bill.

But a worse legacy will be the wrongly accused (without the presumption of innocence) and the technology innovators discouraged from innovating, and thus actually creating the new digital economy the Government continually lauds with words but not, it turns out, with actions.

Welcome, then, to IngSoc, the home of Digital Doublethink.

  • @EnglishFolkfan

    How soon I wonder before I can sign up for a package from my ISP which will include VPN and thus protect us both from the long arm of this farcical #debill Law.

    As a UK voter for over 40 years watching the live televised debacle of the bill ‘washup’ I realised I’m finally and totally disillusioned by our current Parliamentary system.

    • corn

      Well this is not the 1st time, Google has been sued by UK officials

    • se7en

      You can’t trust an ISP to supply any kind of secure service, you really really have to do it yourself with a VPN endpoint in a different jurisdiction.

  • Steve

    Great summing up Mike!

    As I write this from Cambodia I am astounded that this narrow sighted bill has got through the House. It smacks of a bill that has had lobbying behind it to push it through. MPs who voted without a real understanding of the ramifications should be ashamed (although sadly I’m sure they’re not)…

  • Amrelee

    I watched the live feed. I am very, very unhappy. Why is main stream not reporting this? We are fools..47 said no.


  • david Robins

    This sounds similar to the web neutrality crap being discussed in the USA. This is the beginning of censorship.
    We are a new start up providing online hosting and collaboration tools. What our customers need is absolute privacy. Laws like this are made to help the old guard make money a little bit longer. The losers will the consumers and our freedom!

  • PhilT

    ” if one of your employees goes rogue you’ll be in the frame for it.”

    don’t be silly, this is just FUD. Any company worthy of the name is firewalled and filtered to avoid this type of hassle, and who allows P2P apps on workplace computers ?

    • Björn Loesing

      There are plenty of companies that have liberal firewall-settings and are open to P2P – like the company I work in.

      Why? Because we distribute online games, and some of our games update via BitTorrent.

      If we were sitting in the UK, this would put us very much at risk – and who’s to say you’re not going to be punished for accidentally looking at copyrighted material via YouTube?

      The Bill is a farce, and while it’s in place, I’ll certainly won’t consider migrating back to the UK.

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  • DMH

    Anyone who doubts the vague language of this law will be abused by the State need only look at how anti-terrorism legislation has been co-opted by local councils to spy on peoples’ bin usage, school application procedures and car parking violations. Sad.

    • Rich


      Politicians no not the monster they create. This will drive file sharing underground. People will figure it out and will continue to live in opposition to their own governments.

      What a wonderful thing the Internet is and will always be. Smart kids will run circles round governments forever.

      • Rich

        …the last thing I’d want to see is some kid, 5-10 years from now being pulled up on some archaic 2010 law that gives lawmakers carte blanche to make up the rules as they go along. What’s worse will be doing that over, let’s face it, something that lawmakers don’t understand: the Internet.

  • Chris Reeves

    This is disgusting, MP’s who didn’t bother to show up for the debate shouldn’t be allowed to vote, its that simple, the UK parliamentary system angers me so much.

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  • Edward Asiedu

    This underscores the problem of representative governments everywhere. A bunch of aloof people get to create laws about things they don’t understand.

  • James Mayes

    TechCrunch should be ashamed of itself. The vast majority of this article is lifted from the Telegraph and is classic reporting “after the event”. TechCrunch should have been on this far earlier and making far more noise.

    The strength of reaction on Twitter alone shows how strong feeling is. TechCrunch #fail.

  • James Mayes

    Apologies for the Telegraph comment – my oversight!

    Notwithstanding, you’re still late to the party.

    • Mike Butcher

      Er, I *wrote* the Telegraph piece, freelance. These are my words. I get to use them how I like.

      Late am I? I wrote posted this at 3.30am this morning after working all night on it. You only just noticed it on Twitter, that’s why you think it’s late.

      • James Mayes

        Hey, I noticed my cock-up on the telegraph aspect and apologised immediately. I would have removed it and rewritten, but there’s no functionality for that.

        My main criticism still stands. #DEBill is of huge importance to the UK’s internet and creative industry and TechCrunch has been FAR too quiet on the issue.

      • Paul Carr

        Actually, James, you’re still totally wrong. I may not agree with Mike’s position on this but I covered the bill for TC (Europe and US) weeks ago.

        We’ve been on it since the start.

  • Stuart Dredge

    Hey Mike,

    I agree on the worrying nature of the ‘likely to infringe’ clause, and about the craziness of rushing legislation this important through a crucial parliamentary stage in a couple of hours, but…

    The Sweden/IPRED example needs fleshing out. Music sales went UP in Sweden last year – even CDs – which suggests that the combination of IPRED and the popularity of Spotify did result in more people in the general population buying music, even if it also meant more hardcore file-sharers going dark with VPNs.

    And when you dig into the DEB, it does say that the Ofcom report that would be required to trigger any technical measures (i.e. suspensions) would have to include a section on “the steps taken by copyright owners to enable subscribers to obtain lawful access to copyright works”.

    Which will be down to the interpretation of whoever’s in power at the time, but it’s possible to read the Bill as a challenge to the creative industries too: ‘We’ll back you up on anti-piracy action, but you’ve got to up your game when it comes to licensing innovative new startups and access models too’.

    Hopefully, the wave of protests against the Bill at this stage will prod the next government to keep to that aim.

    And that would help startups, rather than hinder them – their complaints about licensing barriers may not fall on deaf ears.

    • Mike Butcher

      Thanks for pointing that out Stuart. The trouble is that I fear the section you refer to (“steps taken by copyright owners to enable subscribers to obtain lawful access to copyright works”) will end up meaning that some music label says “Well we put it on iTunes, so there.” This doesn’t take account of people’s changing behaviour and attitude to recorded music. In the end this Bill is a protectionist one for old industries, not new ones. There is little (no, make that zero) thought put in to encouraging digital innovation.

  • Stuart Dredge

    That said, everything above will depend on the will, resolve and knowledge of politicians, so…

  • f2point4

    The really sad thing is how late in the day I became aware of some of the implication this law could have on me as a budding photographer. In my other incarnation as a conference interpreter I remember a job for the Musicians’ Union several years ago where they talked about getting legal protection against their issues with illegal file-sharing. They DID work on this for years. Where were we then?

  • James Mayes

    Stuart – I recal a quote from a few years back – something like “A man can achieve anything in the corridors of Westminster, provided he cares not who gets the credit”.

    I think that’s pretty relevant with #GE2010 in play!

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    #DEBill is the russian for “#Retard”

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