Will It All Come Out In The Wash?

The Digital Economy Bill looks as if it will be pushed through in the “wash-up” leading up to the election, after the UK government confirmed that it will receive its second reading in the House Of Commons April 6.

That’s also when Prime Minister Gordon Brown is expected to set the date for the election and so the bill may well go through in the “wash up,” the period after an election is called when the government can – albeit with opposition support – try to rush through legislation before parliament is dissolved.

Bills that have passed through one part of parliament can be nodded through by agreement between the whips of the main parties after parliament has formally risen for the election. The system doesn’t allow for further debate of the issues and the only changes that can be made to bills are deletions.

Liberal Democrat chief whip Paul Burstow has said he won’t be nodding the bill through the wash-up because there hasn’t been enough time for MPs “to examine it in detail.”

Many of his Lib-Dem colleagues say the bill, particularly the part relating to disconnecting serial illegal file-sharers from the Internet, is being rushed through without sufficient debate.

They’re likely to oppose the bill but the Conservatives look set to back the government’s proposals.

One sticking point may be the reintroduction of plans to allow ministers to modify copyright law to block Web sites that offer pirated music and film content.

During the bill’s passage through the House of Lords, the government’s plan to allow the secretary of state to modify the Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act of 1988 in response to new forms of illegal file-sharing was blocked by both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.

Even if the law is passed – and newspaper straw polls suggest it may well be – it’s unlikely to be the end of the opposition to it.
The bill has come under sustained attack from Internet companies including Google and Facebook and major broadband providers such as British Telecom and TalkTalk. Neither is happy about the cost of legally challenging their sites being blocked or about having to snoop on customers suspected of illegal file-sharing.

The Guardian questioned whether the British Phonographic Industry, whose members would most benefit from an end to illegal file-sharing, is happy with the amount of time MPs have been given to debate the bill.

The paper suggested the BPI doesn’t want parliament to spend longer on the bill because it would only increase the likelihood of it being derailed.

It said MPs are planning to pass one of the most important bills in British history without even talking it over. It also pointed out that tens of thousands of Brits have written to their MPs and demanded they show up for work during the wash-up and make sure the legislation is thoroughly discussed before it’s unloaded on the UK.

House Of Commons leader Harriet Harman, who has admitted “ministers are aware” of the strong feelings being sparked by the proposed new law, has reportedly been sent at least 2,000 letters. Another 15,000 letters have been sent to MPs asking them to make sure there is a full debate.

The BPI is also said to be concerned that the government’s anti-piracy measures could lead to greater use of encryption technology to disguise internet traffic, thereby preventing anyone monitoring which pirate sites they’re visiting.