UK Digital Economy Bill Progresses with Haste

The UK government’s Digital Economy Bill is proceeding at some pace through the legislative process – somewhat contrary to my previous comments and general expectations.  The main driver is the upcoming obligatory general election, with May 6th openly blurted by ministers as the probable day, although no official date has been set.

The Bill (which unusually started in the upper House of Lords) has moved through its committee stage after two readings, whilst it also has to negotiate the lower House of Commons. It has many other stages to negotiate: two in the upper house and 5 in the lower house, with significant line by line, word by word scrutiny and votes on amendments – all very time-consuming.

Progressive response was keenly debated, with more questions raised than answers provided.  Of concern were issues such as: is it the right mechanism to deal with copyright infringement; how do we implement it practically, fairly and firmly; unintended consequences; and possible adverse reactions and responses by citizens and companies.

At this stage no firm decisions have been made, but clearly the government is intent on getting this bill into legislation.  It is using a range of devices to accelerate it through the processes, apparently brushing aside some of the concerns regarding progressive response, but the detail will come back to slow the process down.

These developments are taking place against the backdrop of more than 80 other bills competing for legislative time, and new initiatives being announced on the fly and inserted into existing bills – all demanding the institutions’ time.  Furthermore, more members of Parliament are announcing that they are standing down at the next election, switching off, and increasingly not turning up to vote, making the passage of the bill less certain.

Whilst I had previously indicated that it was unlikely to come into law, and the balance of probabilities continue to indicate that, one can’t deny the governments’ intent to complete the process in time.

The key areas being legislated on include:

  • Extending the role of the UK telecoms regulator OFCOM to include reporting on communications infrastructure and media content
  • Imposing obligations on internet service providers to reduce online copyright infringement, and allowing the Secretary of State to amend copyright legislation to the same end
  • Allowing the Secretary of State to intervene in Internet domain name registration
  • Requiring Channel Four TV to provide public service content on a range of media
  • Providing more flexibility over the licensing of Channel 3 and Channel 5 TV services, and allowing OFCOM to appoint providers of regional and local news
  • Modifying the broadcasting licensing regime to facilitate switchover to digital radio
  • Allowing variation of the public service provision in Channel 3 and 5 TV licences
  • Providing OFCOM with additional powers over electromagnetic spectrum access
  • Extending the range of video games that are subject to age-related classification
  • Providing for the regulation of copyright licensing
  • Including non-print formats in the public lending right payment scheme

All in all, this is a weighty and pervasive bill.

Progressive response might fall into the “too difficult” legislative tray whilst the government concentrates on the more substantive items in this wide ranging bill to get it through in time.

Bill Jones is CEO of Global Village Ltd.

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