Reluctant Support For UK Digital Bill

The Digital Economy Bill appears set to become law after getting the reluctant support of the Conservative opposition, although UK shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt qualified his party’s backing by saying it will ditch any “flawed legislation” if it wins the May 6 election.

The bill was expected to be voted through the House Of Commons in time to be included in the “wash-up” period of fast-track negotiations before parliament is dissolved.

However, it’s hard to say how long the wide-ranging legislation will stay on the statute book, The bill includes controversial measures that could see the Internet connections of illegal file-sharers suspended or copyright-infringing sites blocked.

“The bill could have been massively improved if there had been more scrutiny at the committee stage – why is it debate on such a critically important bill has been left to the last minute?” Hunt asked during an MPs’ discussion on the bill.

“There are parts of the bill that we will reluctantly let through. Digital piracy is a very real problem for our creative industries. We accept that action needs to be taken to ensure the Internet is a functioning marketplace and that copyright infringers do not get away with their actions scot free,” he explained.

“These measures are so critical for 2 million jobs for people in the digital and creative industries that if clauses are completely deleted or removed there would be an economic cost.”

Although the Labour government holds a significant voting majority, Conservative support has been seen as crucial because the fast-track wash-up process of negotiations deals only with unopposed legislation.

The Conservatives were less keen to support a reform of the House Of Lords, which would eventually see the end of hereditary peers, or a sharp tax-driven increase on the cost of cider.

During the “wash-up,” which bills get passed and which ones flounder usually comes down to horse-trading among the major political parties.

Although Hunt supported the bill, he still described it as “a digital disappointment of colossal proportions.”

“The choice we have is to act on unlawful downloading or not to act. That is the choice the House needs to make,” said Digital Britain minister Stephen Timms.

Other critics of the bill, including the Open Rights Group, Liberal Democrats and Internet service providers, argue that legislation of such importance is not being given enough time to be properly scrutinised. They have called for it to be reintroduced in the next parliament.

Some papers have criticised the British Phonographic Industry, which has plenty to gain from a clampdown on illegal file-sharing, claiming the record companies’ organisation feared the bill would be lost if it was subjected to full parliamentary debate.

“This bill is the victim of one of the worst lobbying scandals of this parliament,” said Open Rights Group executive director Jim Killock.

“Parliamentary scrutiny must be applied. Over 20,000 voters have written to MPs and raised funds for adverts, because we know disconnection of families for allegations of copyright infringement is a draconian punishment, and needs to be fully debated, not rammed through at the last minute.”

Despite the objections, the bill was given a second reading and is expected to be rushed through its final stages April 7.

Commons leader Harriet Harman has promised that, should Labour win the upcoming election, the bill would be subject to “a super-affirmative procedure,” which would mean the details of it will require further parliamentary scrutiny.