March 22, 2010

Digital rights groups assail new UK "Digital Economy" law

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A report in The Bookseller says that the House of Lords last week passed the controversial Digital Economy Bill, which attempts a comprehensive regulation of digital media, addressing everything from file sharing and copyright infringement to video game content.

The bill has been widely criticized by digital rights groups as giving unconstitutional powers to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Peter Mandelson, a Labour party leader who also bears the honorific, First Secretary of State in Gordon Brown’s cabinet. Mandelson, considered by his detractors to be a Machiavellian figure (see this commentary from The Times) has twice resigned the government in corruption scandals. Even his defenders say, “He has stuck his hand in a lot of open jars.”

After the revelation of private talks with David Geffen (see this Times report, “Mandelson targets web pirates after dinner with mogul”) worry intensified that provisions of the bill have been drafted with the aim of satisfying corporate interests.

The Times quotes a Whitehall source as saying “Until the past week Mandelson had shown little personal interest in the Digital Britain agenda. Suddenly Peter returned from holiday and effectively issued this edict that the regulation needs to be tougher.”

The Bookseller reports “growing concern over clause 43, which gives the secretary of state powers ‘for authorising a licensing body to grant copyright licences in respect of works in which copyright is not owned by the body or a person on whose behalf the body acts.’”

According to the Action on Authors’ Rights representative quoted by the Bookseller, Diana Kimpton, that authority may be given to the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), which, according to the ALCS website, collects “secondary royalties” for its writer-members and lobbies “on issues of importance to writers both at a national and international level, to ensure that writers’ rights are both recognised and rewarded.”

The Action on Authors’ Rights website claims that “These provisions would permit the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (or a successor) to authorize the ALCS (or a similar company) to mass-license all British publications to Google (or another entity), except in those cases where the authors or other copyright-owners had gone to some trouble to prevent this.”

In other words, the Digital Economy bill  “has the potential to be used to impose a Google Books-style scheme in the UK.”

Dr. Gill Spraggs, another of the Action on Authors’ Rights representatives, has summarized their objections to the bill in a letter to The Enlightened Economist:

There is an ignorant enthusiasm out there, for compulsory licensing, both in the name of increasing ‘access’ and as an answer, I think, to what are perceived to be problems over enforcing copyright in the case of digital formats. I say ‘ignorant’ because I don’t think the problems have been adequately researched, or the supposed answers properly thought through. Moreover, I think the whole ferment is being kept stirred up by content aggregators (Google and others) who want a free hand to strip-mine our literary culture for their own benefit.

Ironically, Google opposes the Digital Economy Bill, as do — according to a Guardian reportYahoo, eBay, and many internet service providers.

Most opposition to the bill has come not from copyright holders but from those alarmed by the draconian penalties to be imposed on file-sharing scofflaws.

The Times reports that …

… the new proposals will prove controversial with critics who warn that the clampdown would criminalise the estimated 6m British broad-band users who download songs and films from file-sharing sites….

Under the regulations, someone suspected of large-scale piracy would first receive a series of warning letters. Industry experts believe that these might be enough to stop 70% of illegal downloads — the ones carried out by children without the knowledge of their parents.

However, failure to heed the initial warnings would be followed by the entire household having its internet service cut. The addresses of the hardcore pirates would be circulated to all internet service providers.”

Dan O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Melville House.

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