The government unveiled the Digital Economy Bill today, confirming tortuously complicated proposals to combat copyright infringement by to-ing and fro-ing between ISPs, rights holders, Ofcom and the courts. It also paved the way for business secretary Lord Mandelson to rewrite copyright law.
The bill implements the proposals of the Stephen Timms announced that Internet service providers will be forced to send cease-and-desist notices to customers they suspect of copyright infringement. The ISPs are then obliged to pass anonymous details of these notifications to copyright holders -- if an ISP refuses, it faces a £250,000 fine. Film studios and record labels will use these notifications as evidence to apply for a court order to find out the user's name and address, so they can haul users up in front of civil proceedings.. There are no big surprises, but not much in the way of specifics either. Minister for Digital Britain
The bill doesn't go into specifics over the controversialpolicy, as it doesn't specify the number of notifications a user can receive before being taken to court. It also doesn't specify a minimum number, so rights holders may be able to go after users they suspect of large-scale infringement after just one warning. The bill specifically sets a maximum fine for users criminally convicted of infringing copyright for commercial gain. Anyone convicted of profiting from copyright infringement could be fined up to £50,000.
There are still plenty of questions surrounding the bill. Timms announced that court cases and cut-offs will only be considered if the notifications system doesn't reduce copyright infringement by 70 per cent in the first year after introduction. It's not clear how this will be measured, although Ofcom will probably be involved in the figures. What this does mean is that disconnections can't start until 2011 at the earliest.
At least a court is involved somewhere in the process, and ISPs and rights holders are not required or empowered to act against users without court approval. But the process seems arse-backwards in at least one way: rights holders monitor peer-to-peer file-sharing sites to look for anyone uploading their copyrighted material. Instead then pursuing those uploaders, ISPs and rights holders assume that what gets uploaded must have been downloaded, and goes round the houses to punish downloaders.
And of course, there's Mandy. The bill sets out a proposal for the business secretary to amend the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act as he sees fit. Should Parliament okay this proposal, twice-sacked unelected officialthrough secondary legislation -- which doesn't need to be approved by Parliament. It's nothing short of a political land grab, and we'd hope MPs see sense and if nothing else kick this part of the bill into touch.
On a more positive note, the bill addresses universal broadband. Specifics of the proposedwill be contained in a separate finance bill, probably because the Conservatives aren't keen on it. It's probably been left out so as not to scupper the Digital Economy Bill.
Other aspects of the bill include compulsory age ratings on games aimed at players aged 12 and over, and a clampdown on dodgy domains. This includes a provision for the government to potentially take over UK domain allocation from independent body Nominet.
The bill has still to be debated in Parliament and could yet be amended -- hopefully delivering a democratic dropkick to Mandelson's power-hungry, special interest-motivated happy sack in the process -- but the government will be keen to push it through before the next general election. With that election looming -- June 2010 at the latest -- now is a very good time to phone your MP. For more details, our sister site ZDNet attended the government briefing this morning.