Digital Top Stories

Digital Economy Bill passed by House Of Commons, minus Clause 18

By | Published on Thursday 8 April 2010

The Digital Economy Bill is nearly law, people. But, as long predicted, without the controversial Clause 18, which the government was forced to drop at the last minute last night. Though arguably a tweak to Clause 8 means some of the dropped provision will still get through.

The Bill, which had its second reading in the House Of Commons on Tuesday, went through an incredibly speedy committee stage yesterday afternoon so that the proposed legislation could have a third reading last night, reducing a process that would normally take weeks down to 24 hours. With a few last minute alterations, the Bill was passed thanks to Tory support.

The late in the day amendments will now have to be approved by the House Of Lords, but, given most of the amendments were cuts, that approval is being taken as a given in parliamentary circles. It is therefore looking increasingly likely that the Digital Economy Bill will be safely law before the most General of Elections.

But, the last minute axing of Clause 18 – although not a surprise – will disappoint pro-DEB groups in the music industry. This was the clause designed to extend the power of the Bill so that it tackled online piracy other than conventional file-sharing, which is theoretically dealt with by the three-strikes system the legislation will put in place.

Record label trade body the BPI in particular wanted the courts to have increased powers to block access to websites that contain large amounts of infringing content or, crucially, which provide links to large amounts of infringing content. The latter point was important in that it would clarify the liabilities of those websites which link to unlicensed content but don’t actually host it, so services like The Pirate Bay or Oink.

But the various versions of Clause 18 (originally Clause 17) proved controversial, mainly because some feared powers to block sites like The Pirate Bay or Oink could also be used against more legitimate web services like Google, who will inadvertently link to unlicensed content.

Despite a rather wordy final amendment by the government which basically said “we’ll give the courts website blocking powers, but only after talking to lots of people about it”, ministers had to drop the clause to ensure the Bill was passed last night.

However, according to The Guardian, a last minute tweak to Clause 8 of the Bill will mean that if a court says a website exists primarily to infringe copyright the relevant secretary of state could still force ISPs to block access to it. Although a much reduced version of Clause 18, opponents said last night that power too could be misused against legitimate sites that inadvertently aid infringement.

Other elements of the Bill were also cut to ensure its quick passage. Earlier the government agreed to drop the part of the legislation that deals with ITV local news provision, the section that the Tories have most objected to from the word go. Meanwhile, during last night’s debate the clause that dealt with so called orphan works (copyright-protected work where the owner is not known) was also cut, the photography community having been most vocal in its opposition to that measure.

But, crucially, the three-strikes proposals, which could see persistent file-sharers have their net connections suspended if they fail to heed warnings to stop file-sharing, are now very likely to become law within the month. Though quite how quickly said system will be introduced, and exactly how it will work, will not be known until after the General Election.

In related news, the government also dropped another of its controversial net-based proposals yesterday, though this one was in its Finance Bill. The government had proposed adding a £6 a year levy on all fixed phone lines to help fund the nationwide rollout of superfast broadband. But the so called ‘broadband tax’ had to be axed in order to ensure the safe passage of that Bill during the wash-up.