The Digital Economy Bill was introduced into the House of Lords by Lord Mandleson shortly after the Queen's Speech and received its Second Reading last week. Clauses 4 to 17 of this Bill give effect to the so-called "three strikes and out" proposals, under which repeated downloading of material in breach of copyright will cause an internet subscriber to be disconnected from the internet or otherwise restricted in some way (what the Bill refers to as "technical measures").
Breach of copyright is breach of copyright, and although many think that attempting to prevent unlawful sharing of copyrighted material over the internet is a fruitless exercise which is bound to fail in the end, a few countries have been persuaded by the international media corporations (mainly those making and selling CDs and DVDs) to attempt legislation in the area. These include France and now the United Kingdom, but this approach is not yet widespread. To that extent the UK and France will be something of a test bed.
These proposals have to be viewed against the background that for many access to the internet has become essential to leading a normal life - a point the government itself made when promulgating its proposals for broadband to be made available compulsorily over the whole of the UK, including rural areas, to be paid for by current telephone subscribers. For many, probably most, it has become as important to everyday life as did the provision of electricity supplies in the last century.
One feature of the Bill is that practically everything of substance, including the procedures for giving warnings (and indeed even the number of warnings - there is no mention in the Bill of "three strikes") is to be fleshed out in codes of practice. The Bill requires the provisions of the codes to be objectively justifiable, non-discriminatory, proportionate and transparent, and to provide rights of appeal ("subscriber appeals") to an independent technical panel and thence (if a subscriber has been cut off or had internet access restricted) on grounds to be specified in the code to an Appeals Tribunal, but this is a poor substitute for spelling out more of the detail and the subscriber protections in the Bill itself, particularly as these codes will only be subject to the most limited Parliamentary examination - some require approval by statutory instrument subject to annulment procedure, which is cursory enough given that Parliamentary time is rarely given to annulment motions, and some are not even subject to that. The Data Protection Act 1998 for example sets out considerably more detail on the information which is protected by it, and on enforcement and appeals.
There is a good analysis of the Bill produced by the UK's Open Rights Group so I will not go into more detail about it here: those interested can read that article. I should say though that I do not agree with the Group's contention that the appeal procedures are defective because it would not be open to an internet subscriber to appeal a proposal that he or she should be cut off on the grounds that what was done was not in fact in breach of copyright. The Group reason that the "copyright infringement disputes" subject to appeal comprise a dispute which "relates to an act or omission in relation to a technical obligation or the technical obligations code" and that this does not go to whether there was a breach of copyright in the first place. However it seems to me that what would be appealed would be the cutting-off of the internet supply or the placing of restrictions on the internet supply to the subscriber - that would be the "act in relation to ... the technical obligations code" and that would allow the subscriber to raise the issue of whether the rights of the copyright owner have in fact been infringed, and not just whether in fact file sharing took place. The Bill provides for two levels of appeals. For cases only involving the "initial obligations code" (mainly involving preparation of copyright infringement lists) there will be no second right of appeal from the technical panel to the Appeals Tribunal, but there will be once the possibility of being cut off or having internet access restrictions imposed comes into play through the "technical obligations code".
Nonetheless I think the Bill is subject to criticism on the grounds that these essential protections are left to the codes rather than set out in the Bill itself.
Leaving aside the detail set out in the Open Rights Group analysis, there are four other overview points I would make about the Bill. First we (the internet subscribers) are going to pay for this. The Bill provides for copyright owners wanting to invoke the procedures to contribute to the costs of internet service providers in operating the code, but these are not required by the Bill to be pound for pound. In addition, internet service providers as well as copyright owners can be required to contribute to OFCOM's costs in drawing up the codes, and in preparing reports, which it would have to do both quarterly and annually, about copyright infringement by internet subscribers. This is a form of taxation, to be met in the end by internet subscribers, rather nicely described as a "sharing of costs".
Secondly, although the Bill enables (but does not require) the code to compel a copyright owner to enter into arrangements with an internet service provider regarding the number of copyright infringements the owner can allege against the provider's subscribers within a particular period, there are no sanctions for repeated incorrect or inaccurate claims of infringement leading subscribers to be cut off when they should not be, or to spend the time and effort in appealing when they should not have to do so. In particular, no protection is offered for subscribers against those alleging infringement other than that of appeal. The omens are not good on this: a number of claims of illegal file sharing have been made by media company representatives against people in the United States under different (US federal) legislation where the evidence for this has been shown to be simply wrong or technically deficient, but I also make the more general observation that human nature is such that if overly broad powers are given they will in the end be abused. Even the police are prone to that, as witness the improper use they have been making of sections 44 and 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 to prevent people taking photographs in public places in a way we would not have thought possible in this ostensibly free country only three or four years ago. If the police feel able to do this, what about distant media companies with zealous middle managers wanting to meet their quota for catching "those criminal file sharing commies", companies which probably aren't even in a UK legal jurisdiction to begin with.
The potential for abuse is further widened by the fact that the Bill provides that the codes may provide that "the number and nature of copyright infringement reports relating to the subscriber may be taken into account for the purposes of any technical measures" (that is, a cutting-off), and that there can be a minimum threshold number of reports before an internet service provider is required to take action as well as a maximum number of infringements that a copyright owner can make. These "copyright infringement reports" are the copyright owner's allegations of infringement, not proven infringements. And any warning to a subscriber sent by virtue of an infringement report does not even need to be sent by post - according to proposed new section 124A(7) of the Communications Act 2003 as inserted by clause 4 of the Bill it would be sufficient if it is sent by e-mail, even though e-mail is known not to be a reliable means of delivery. Within the first year or two of a scheme of this kind coming into force, we will be having our first horror stories of people being cut off the internet where they should not be as a result of the poor practices of those operating the scheme and in particular of the media companies, poor practices which will quite probably be strenuously denied until someone does the public service of leaking some internal documents demonstrating it. I do not think the Bill as yet requires the codes to be robust enough to deal with this.
Thirdly, the cutting-off of a subscriber, or other technical measures, are not necessarily the end of the matter. The internet service provider could be required on application to a court to reveal the name of a subscriber equating to a particular internet address (the numerical internet address given to a computer or router when connecting to the provider's internet service). I do not have a problem with that provided that data protection safeguards are met (and they should be if application has to be made to a court), but it demonstrates that there are other remedies available to an infringed copyright owner apart from cutting a subscriber off. To the credit of the Bill, it does provide in clause 5 a "subscriber identity firewall" which requires an order of the court before actual names can be revealed.
Fourthly, clause 17 of the Bill enables amendment of Parts 1 and 7 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 by order made by statutory instrument subject to affirmative procedure just on the grounds that it is "for the purpose of preventing or reducing the infringement of copyright by means of the internet, if it appears to the Secretary of State appropriate to do so having regard to technological developments that have occurred or are likely to occur". Apart from the fact that this is a grossly excessive power to confer - to change the fundamentals of copyright law as set out in Part 1 of the 1988 Act - it is difficult to see how this could be necessary to give effect to the intentions of clauses 4 to 16 of the Bill. The government's explanation for this extraordinary provision at Second Reading was completely unconvincing and it would be very alarming if this clause were to survive into the Bill as enacted. Let's hope it does not do so.