Digital Economy Bill latest – two cheers for the LibDem team

As Liberal Democrat Voice has reported in depth over recent weeks, there was a surge of debate around the party’s response to the Digital Economy Bill, leading to our open letter from PPCs, and the emergency motion passed at conference. Great joy.

Then it all went quiet.

There has of course been a little matter of the Budget. MPs and candidates have been, quite rightly, out on the hustings and the doorsteps. But if our Parliamentary party were otherwise engaged, the blogosphere was not. The dedicated campaigning of the Open Rights Group was joined by the 38 Degrees lobby. They have objected not only to the content of bits of the Digital Economy Bill, but also the obvious concerns about its process.

If nothing else, this Bill has highlighted to a new generation of voters the urgent need for Parliamentary reform. The unelected second chamber; ridiculous rush, horsetrading and lack of debate of the washup; the way a Government elected with a minority of the vote can railroad through legislation – all of this must change.

The Open Rights Group anti-disconnection rally took the issue from the screen to the streets, and I was delighted to be invited to speak on behalf of our party. As I told the crowds, we started campaigning for Freedom of Information against a Tory government; now we are campaigning for free exchange of information under Labour. When you deal with a death, there is a cycle of emotion from grief through anger to acceptance. When it comes to the death of our freedoms under Labour, as Liberal Democrats we may be aggrieved, we are angry, but we will not accept it.

Liberal Democrat campaigners have been maintaining the pressure on MPs of all parties. Julian Huppert and I were co-signatories to a letter in the Guardian calling for a rethink, and several of us have been blogging and podcasting to keep up the profile of the issue.

I was proud that our party’s policy put us in the lead; but I wasn’t alone in feeling frustrated that our MPs were so quiet on the subject. So as well as speaking up with the Open Rights Group, I’ve been speaking behind the scenes to the party leadership, to try and ensure that our party follows through on the direction that conference set ten days ago.

And I’ve now had a response through from Don Foster MP and the DCMS team, the full text of which is on my blog here.

Now it’s perhaps not the response as the Open Rights Group would have written it; but then I’m in favour of LibDem positions being written, well, by Liberal Democrats.

It’s a long text, setting out why our MPs feel parts of the Bill – on areas such as Channel 4 and regional TV – merit support; and why they want to balance internet freedom with support for the creative industries. So there is no commitment to vote against the Bill as a whole. But, unlike Labour and Tory front benches, the LibDem DCMS team do acknowledge that further debate is definitely required. “The controversial parts of the Bill will need to be scrutinised and voted upon by the next parliament before they can be brought into law. Liberal Democrats MPs would not support these sections of the Bill without this process.”

The logic of that is that LibDem MPs will vote against those elements in the washup, if only because there’s been no debate. We’ll expect them to stick to that.

The highlight for me is clear opposition to web-blocking: “We do not believe that measures to address site blocking can reasonably be included in the Digital Economy Bill and we will not support any such measures”.

So we have the keenly-awaited clear assurance that Liberal Democrat MPs, as a party, not just individual rebels, will vote against web-blocking in the Digital Economy Bill (better late than never). This alone sets us apart from the other main parties.

On disconnection, the position is less absolute. “The Liberal Democrats are unconvinced of the merits of measures such as temporary account suspension or bandwidth throttling” and propose a set of technical measures, to be met before any disconnection would be possible; the main ones are that copyright infringers would be notified by letter, without any risk of their internet connection being affected for at least a year, and that any process to disconnect users explicitly assumes their innocence until they are proven guilty.

Another concern our motion highlighted was the threat to wifi and community access. The MPs pick that up as an issue too: “We believe there is inadequate protection in the Bill for schools, libraries, universities and other businesses offering internet access to the public” and they promise “We will take further action in the Commons to improve the legislation.”

On copyright they assert “We have already opposed – and helped defeat – government proposals to give itself powers to change copyright law almost at will. We will oppose any attempt to reinstate such powers in the Commons.” They also call on the industries concerned about copyright “to develop easy and affordable ways to legally access their products” so that “disconnection is never required”.

So overall two cheers for the LibDems on the Digital Economy Bill:

First for being open to debate at our conference – hard to imagine Labour or Conservatives allowing such challenge at their last pre-election gathering.

Two for promising to take action – by promising to vote against the web-blocking provisions of the Bill, and to demand further scrutiny on other controversial measures, LibDem MPs are taking a progressive stance quite distinct from the other main parties.

And the third cheer? That may have to wait a few weeks – for the next Parliament when we will have a new wave of MPs ready to strengthen the support for web freedom, and undo the worst provisions of the Bill. And, in the case of the Liberal Democrats, a policy mandate to do just that.

In the meantime, three things we can all do:

– lobby your own MP, of whatever party, saying that your vote depends on them voting against web-blocking
– highlight the positive moves the LibDem MPs have made, in order to put pressure on others to do the same
– help elect more LibDem MPs, with a pro-freedom mandate, to ensure that the legislation will be further amended in the next Parliament.

Now I’m back to those doorsteps!

Bridget Fox is Lib Dem prospective parliamentary candidate for Islington South & Finsbury.

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14 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 26th Mar '10 - 10:57pm

    One significant problem with trying to ensure “innocent until proven guilty” here is that the government is trying to make this a civil measure, rather than a criminal one. You have far less rights in a civil court (notably, you have no guarantee of legal aid, and whether it would be available for these cases is unclear), and the requirement for “proof beyond reasonable doubt” does not exist.

    I also am unimpressed by Don’s attitude here. Too much unthinking acceptance of what the industry lobbyists say.

    That “quarter of a million jobs i nthe UK’s creative industries” figure uses some ridiculous calculations. It assumed that the growth in Internet traffic will directly correlate to more piracy, which would directly correlate to lost revenue and to job losses

    It’s a little more subtle than that. Their estimates for the growth in traffic are mostly sound, although they’ve changed the numbers by a couple of percent. The assumption that this traffic is entirely illegal, is fantasy. They got the figures from Cisco’s traffic survey, which considers only the type of traffic and not its legal status.

    Where they take a flying leap into insanity is buried in the middle of their calculations. There are two tricks involved in generating these nonsensical numbers:

    Firstly, the “substitution rate”. This is their estimate of what proportion of unlicensed copies would be replaced by sales, if “piracy” was completely eliminated. For example, the report states:

    In the recorded music context, we have based our
    assumptions on a conservative 10% substitution
    rate, while acknowledging that this rate could be
    much higher.

    Anybody who is familiar with the subject should recognise 10% as being a large estimate. They have picked this rate by cherry-picking studies that show high figures, misinterpreting studies to get the maximum possible figure, and ignoring all the ones which show it to be near zero. Random example, the report cites:

    Hong (2004, 2008): The introduction of napster explains 20% of the
    decline in music expenditures in 2000.

    But if we look at the paper itself, what it really said was:

    These two other methods
    indirectly measure the effect of Napster in that they explicate that more than
    80% of music sales decrease in 2000 might have resulted from factors aside from
    Napster.

    Plain old dishonest quoting; they’ve changed “no more than 20%” into “exactly 20%”.

    Secondly, a hidden assumption: that people will spend more money, and not simply shift their purchases from one thing to another. They are quietly proposing that UK consumers will spend an additional £600m per year on music/films/TV, and that this money will be magically produced without spending being reduced in other areas. Obviously this is quite unlikely; most consumers have a strictly limited amount of money to spend on entertainment. A more realistic expectation is that people will continue to spend roughly the same amount, since they aren’t earning any extra money, but would replace their entertainment from file sharing with free forms of entertainment.

    There’s a few other idiotic bits in there, like counting “TV series” as “lost revenue” even when it’s something that was on freeview anyway, but the big two are those.

  • web-site blocking as per lord clement-jones is the only way forward. are you saying this leading lawyer does not kknow what he’s talking about. bit comet, limewire, and other main p2p sites have to be blocked, and the public are to blame.

    you seem very naive my girl

  • motions at conference mean very little in the grand scheme of things richard

  • Disappointed 28th Mar '10 - 12:09pm

    I know someone who ran a website which did not contain any copyrighted material, but pointed to where it could be found. He was repeatedly taken to court by the record, industries alleging breach of copyright. Each time the courts found in his favour, but the writs kept coming from multiple directions. He was spending all his time and money defending frivolous cases that the record industry could afford to keep throwing in his direction. How could he continue with the website?

    If you know this, you know that the record industry has many methods available to it and is not the defenceless victim it makes out.

    I’ve been yearning for the Lib Dems to hold the balance of power for years – I believed that if they did they would demonstrate the ability to lead to the public at large. But doing nothing until the last possible moment shows no courage and certainly no principle – I’m sure that by this time it will be too late. I don’t see why I should vote for a party that calls itself liberal in name but fails to follow through in action. Sell out.

    Oh, and aren’t we all forgetting that the games industry in Britain is world-class, and yet this is going to be further regulated? So this is support for the creative industries?

  • Andrew Turvey 29th Mar '10 - 12:29am

    “That “quarter of a million jobs in the UK’s creative industries””

    The creative industries – everything from exporting TV franchises like X factor to tourists visiting our many world class museums – are a very important component of our future prosperity. However, it’s one of the unchallenged assumptions to think that more copyright law means more prosperity.

    In a digital age it is easier and cheaper to copy, meld, mash, remix and repurpose previous creations. The best way of boosting creative industries is to open doors to more and more of that – not slam the door shut, punish offenders and endlessly elongate copyright terms.

    Death plus 70 – the standard copyright term – is frankly ridiculous. It does nothing to encourage creativity – just pays the music industry to sit on their back catalogue reaping the rewards from previous generations. If the pharmaceutical industry can prosper with only 5 years of exploitation, why does the music industry need so much longer?

  • So get your examples, work out how to answer any rebuttals and get this into the media.
    End the damned lack of public consultation and understanding of our opinion and make sure the very least we have is a hung Parliament.
    This is wrong and it is time that somebody made a song and dance about it, when did our people turn into the weakest and least heard in the free world.

    Parliament have let us down once again!

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