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Britain's new internet law

Britain's alarming Digital Economy Bill
Thomas Ash
22 November 2009

The government has revealed details of its Digital Economy Bill, trailed in the Queen's Speech. One proposal which has already attracted a great deal of attention is the introduction of new penalties for those suspected of internet piracy, from disconnection to hefty fines. Laws which allow the swift termination of pirates' internet connections (often on a 'three strikes and you're out' basis) have been spreading across the world recently, from France to South Korea.

Interestingly, the number of illegal downloads has been in decline recently. To take just one example, Sweden - home of both the Pirate Bay and the Pirate Party, now represented in the European Parliament - has seen 60% of file-sharers reduce or halt their activity, according to a recent survey. The music industry will doubtless argue that this is a consequence of just the sort of legal penalties now being proposed. But though Sweden has indeed tightened its laws recently, as good a case can be made that it has been driven by the emergence of appealing alternatives like Spotify. After all, the fact remains that the chances of any individual downloader being hooked are tiny.

Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing has hard words for the government's new proposals:

[The Bill] consists almost entirely of penalties for people who do things that upset the entertainment industry (including the "three-strikes" rule that allows your entire family to be cut off from the net if anyone who lives in your house is accused of copyright infringement, without proof or evidence or trial), as well as a plan to beat the hell out of the video-game industry with a new, even dumber rating system (why is it acceptable for the government to declare that some forms of artwork have to be mandatorily labelled as to their suitability for kids? And why is it only some media? Why not paintings? Why not novels? Why not modern dance or ballet or opera?).

So it's bad. £50,000 fines if someone in your house is accused of filesharing. A duty on ISPs to spy on all their customers in case they find something that would help the record or film industry sue them (ISPs who refuse to cooperate can be fined £250,000).

But that's just for starters. The real meat is in the story we broke yesterday: Peter Mandelson, the unelected Business Secretary, would have to power to make up as many new penalties and enforcement systems as he likes. And he says he's planning to appoint private militias financed by rightsholder groups who will have the power to kick you off the internet, spy on your use of the network, demand the removal of files or the blocking of websites, and Mandelson will have the power to invent any penalty, including jail time, for any transgression he deems you are guilty of. And of course, Mandelson's successor in the next government would also have this power.

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