Digital Economy Bill: Nine things you can't do any more

The Digital Economy Bill is now enshrined in law, despite being worryingly open to interpretation. We put on our gloomy hat and look at nine worst-case scenarios

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
4 min read

The Digital Economy Bill has a number of clauses that, if taken to their logical extremes, could see some pretty horrible outcomes. It's completed its whistle-stop tour of the legislative process, sprinting from Commons to Lords with barely a pause for breath before getting the nod from Her Maj. MPs decided to get the bill into law first and worry about the details later.

Until Ofcom hammers out the mechanics of the processes outlined in the bill, it's impossible to say how we'll be affected. We take a look at some of the worst-case scenarios.

Watch copyrighted content

No shizzle, Sherlock. Accessing copyrighted movies and music is illegal already, but with just a minimal amount of know-how it's easier than falling off a slippery log in the rainy season. The bill aims to make it more difficult to access copyrighted content, by blocking Web sites built around sharing such material. From the other side, the bill creates sanctions that can be applied to you, the user, should you be caught with your fingers in the copyright cookie jar.

Download from us

Download.com is part of the big happy CNET family. Among the available software are peer-to-peer file-sharing tools. The bill specifically states that Web sites such as Download.com can be blocked if they're providing tools that infringe copyright.

Use Napster

In the same clause, the bill targets sites that have infringed copyright in the past. That theoretically includes sites such as Napster, which have cleaned up their act since their early days under the Jolly Roger of copyright piracy. This may overturn the recently set legal precedent in which a high court judge ruled against a blanket ban of Usenet-indexing Web site Newzbin.

Use WikiLeaks

But most worrying is that the same clause also specifically allows for blocking sites deemed 'likely to' infringe copyright. We don't yet know how the government will divine whether a site is 'likely to' do anything, unless Ofcom is going to start employing soothsayers. There's also a clause relating to national security, which could see legal restrictions on material 'they' don't want us to see. This may even extend to gagging sites that currently do a bang-up job of making a mockery of 'super-injunctions'.

Mash and mod

File-sharing services host thriving communities transforming copyrighted content in mash-ups and mods. These could be targeted.

Use free open Wi-Fi

The bill distinguishes between subscribers -- you -- and Internet service providers (ISPs). Some networks could be considered to be both, however. If a network is a subscriber -- the actual Wi-Fi is provided by someone else, such as BT Openzone in Starbucks -- then it faces liability for the actions of users. If it's an ISP, it faces bureaucracy, cost and legal obligations to hand over information about users. Either way, the bill will make anyone running or thinking of running open Wi-Fi think twice.

The bill specifically exempts libraries and universities, but not small businesses or local co-operatives. At worst, we could see the end of public Wi-Fi because nobody wants the risk or the headache. At best, we'll have the hassle of registering our details every time we want to log on in public.

Watch YouTube

YouTube wouldn't be what it is today without a critical mass of copyrighted material. Liberal Democrat peer Lord Clement-Jones told our sister site ZDNet that YouTube is unlikely to be affected as Google is jolly decent about taking down copyrighted material when asked nicely. Yet YouTube -- and most video sites -- are stuffed to the gills with copyrighted material. The bill makes provision to nuke them all.

Change ISPs

French law prevents suspended users from switching to another ISP, and Ofcom is expected to come up with a similar provision. It's unclear who will be in charge of this blacklist -- a copyright offender register, if you will. How long will suspended users be kept on the list? Will it lapse after a set period of time, like a police caution? Will you be able to see your record, like a credit record? Either way, ISPs may find themselves forced to check each new user, which could make the process of signing up to a new ISP even more of a chore than it already is.

Google stuff

Google searches torrents and is therefore, by government logic, a file-sharing tool. Will Google be banned? Rupert Murdoch probably hopes so: he already accuses Google News of stealing News International content. There will probably be a bunch of test cases to establish the legal boundaries of the bill, and we'd bet our favourite trousers Murdoch will be all over that like Tiger Woods on a cocktail waitress.

This is all speculation until the mechanics are worked out over the next year. Let us know your best -- and worst -- case scenarios in the comments. Oh, and remember: there's an election coming.