Last night, MPs voted through the digital economy bill. There were only a few MPs in the Commons, but on the internet thousands of people’s tempers were at boiling point. But what does the bill mean to the average internet user or even, let’s whisper it, file-sharer?
Well, not as much as you might think, given the hyperbole whipped up in all corners of the internet. There are matters of principle at stake and many internet users were dismayed to see MPs settle so quickly and firmly on the side of copyright holders rather than users. But in terms of practical effects on their day-to-day activity, the issues are limited.
Ofcom will now be tasked with setting a standard for the level of evidence required to begin an action against a copyright infringer. In this case, the copyright infringer is basically someone downloading Pirates of the Caribbean from a file-sharing site, like BitTorrent or Pirate Bay.
The evidence itself will not point to the individual, but to their location. Copyright holders, such as record or film companies, will hire private detecting agencies to look on torrent sites, detect where material is coming from and then send a list of IP addresses to the relevant internet service provider (ISP). The ISP will keep a record of the number of incidents and once it hits a certain level (yet to be decided) it will send a letter. A level above that will trigger another letter. And then, on the third strike, the internet connection will be suspended.
We don’t know how long for, yet. The suggestion is that it would be something like a week, but if record companies decide that’s not working they’ll presumably ask for more.
The new system will put a commercial pressure on torrent services to provide software which helps customers evade detection. In Sweden, the use of encryption and anonymisation technology has shot up since a similar regulation was put in place. Japan experienced the same story in similar circumstances.
Internet users can purchase ISP proxies or encryption technologies for about £5 a month, which basically make it look as if the user is coming from another country. There are plenty of anonymous peer-to-peer technologies which are free to use and easily found on the internet. Many internet users were upset to see several MPs speak last night on a subject which they seemed less than familiar with, but that factor is also on their side: once again, the law is trying to catch up with technology, and failing.
That doesn’t remove the political opposition to the bill. For such a controversial and important piece of law, many MPs and members of the public were horrified to see it forced through so quickly. “This is an utter disgrace,” said Jim Killock, of the Open Rights Group. “This is an attack on everyone’s right to communicate, work and gain an education. Politicians have shown themselves to be incompetent and completely out of touch with an entire generation’s values.”
The bill got through because of Tory support, a fact Peter Mandelson avoided this morning when he attacked the party for watering it down. “The digital economy legislation has survived but the Tories have made changes that will make the task of building our digital economy in this country somewhat harder. It just shows they do not get it about business, about industry and what we need to do in this country to invest in infrastructure, new technology strengths if we’re going to make them pay our way in the global economy in coming decades. The blow they have tried to strike against the digital economy legislation shows they just do not get it on what we need to do to build up the industries of the future.”
Whichever way you look at it, last night did not paint a reassuring picture of democracy. MPs were hurried into the Commons by the whips to vote on a bill in which they had not actually sat to listen to the debate, which anyway took place in double-quick time so the law could be secured by the time of the election. Many internet users won’t be happy about that. But when it comes to avoiding the consequences of the bill, the path ahead may be easier than they expected.