The Closing of the Net  "original and valuable"  Times Higher Education

The House of Lords  tamely toes the Mandelson line on the UK's  new 3-strikes copyight rules and other wide-reaching proposals related to copyright and the Internet.  In a 'debate' on the Digital Economy Bill, the opposition members of the Lords did not oppose the government's proposals, with one or two laudable exceptions. 


In listening to the House of Lords debate yesterday, one could easily be forgiven for thinking it was a  creative industries protectionist bill, and not the Digital Economy Bill.

Beginning with the sponsoring Minister, Lord Peter Mandelson, the debate focussed on how to protect Britain's creative industries. Their Lordships from all parties  lamely trotted out tired figures on alleged losses due to file-sharing, figures that  would have been  handed to them by the music industry lobbyists,  IFPI.


They all considered that they  have to protect the anachronistic broadcasting companies, and that file-sharing is theft.  Lords from all all political parties  approved of

the 3-strikes concept and the technical measures which represent a very real threat to the Internet industries as well as to civil liberties online.   It is abundantly  clear which lobbyists have been visiting them the most.


What concerns me is not just the lack of opposition, but the lack of understanding as to why there should be opposition to the Digital Economy Bill. A Parliamentary democracy is supposed to offer the platform for opposition voices and for contentious issues to be properly debated. One does not expect to see the so-called opposition benches (Conservative and LibDem) filled with people who support the incument government's  repressive and disproprortionate  Bill that creates the infastructure for Chinese-style censorship.


One would also like to see the opposition standing up for the digital economy  - the real one - which requires an open infrastructure that is not interfered with by government or commercial organisations. Because let's be clear - this Bill has nothing to do with encrouraging  the Digital Economy. That is just a cloak to hide the real protectionist  intent - an intent which escaped in the verbal debate.


It was also concerning to see how many of their Lords and Ladyships represented vested interests.


Lord John  Birt, former head of the BBC,  said he had an interest in EMI,  Eutelsat and PayPal. This gives him a real conflict of interest. Eutelsat is a commercial satellite television operator, with interests in conditional access broadcast systems. EMI is a recorded music company and major rights-holder. He spoke in favour of 3-strikes and protectionism, and moreover, criminal measures  which surely  puts him seriously at odds with his PayPal interest. PayPal is owned by eBay, the online auction company which is under attack from a number of rights-holders in the courts. Those rights-holders want to close down eBay and are suing small eBay traders as a pretext.

 Lord Norman Fowler, Conservative, former Minister in the Thatcher government and now a 3-strikes supporter and  protectionist, has interests in the newspaper industry.

 Lord Stephen Carter of Barnes, on whose report the Bill is based, appears to be working as a self-employed consultant for a range of companies.


3-strikes-supporting  Lib Dem peer and former MP, Lord Tim Razzall,    did raise the issue of ISP costs, and the Clause 6 provision to make penalties retrospective, but his words rang hollow after he had trotted out the IFPI statistics and the rights-holder  messages, with a thinly-veiled attack on the online community.  His Lady wife, Baroness Jane Bonham-Carter of Yarnsbury, spoke in favour of the broadcasting companies.

Lord Clement-Jones, LibDem, former retailer, supports the Bill too which means he supports 3-strikes and technical measures. He asked for clarity on the nature of the technical measures, and the adminisitrative authority which will deal with them.

 Readers who have followed the EU Telecoms Package readers will note he did not ask for court ruling, something which Liberal members of  the European Parliament fought for.   Indeed, I note that his colleague Lord Razzall even supported a suggestion from the Motion Picture Association and Federation Against Copyright Theft for a non-legal body to administer appeals. (Can he really be Liberal-minded?)


Lord Clement-Jones  did raise the issue of the  Henry VIII clause (Clause 17), which would give the Secretary of State the power to rewrite the copyright law without Parliamentary scrutiny. However,  he followed it with a request to replace it with a provision against ‘cyberlockers'.    In other words, he is just asking for a more specific provision for technical measures against a different group of Internet users.


 One of the few exceptions was Lord Lucas, who pointed out that the creative industry woes are at least to some extent their own fault. Lord Larry Whitty is chairman of Consumer Focus, and was one of the few who raised any true opposition to the Bill. Likewise, Baroness Sue Miller , who, interestingly, comes from a publishing background, but opposes the Bill.


The Digital Economy Bill  is complex and our politicians should ensure that they understand the nature of its content and scrutinise it fully. The Digital Economy Bill is trying to deal with too many issues in one place. It muddles copyright with communications law, and disguises an attempt at secondary liability within a digital economy cloak.  Secondly, it  truly fails to embrace the change brought about by the Internet. That change encompasses  the rights of all citizens to freedom of expression.  And it concerns all industries, not just creative industries. In this respect, the Digital Economy Bill turns its back on policies that have been in place for the past 10 or so years to encourage the growth of e-commerce and the flourishing of digital communication. 


My Lords, it is incumbent on you to act on behalf of all those groups affected, not just the few who can pay the lobbyists to visit you.



Watch the House of Lords debate on the Digital Economy Bill. 

Read the  House of Lords debate on the Digital Economy Bill in Hansard .


This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial-Share Alike 2.5 UK:England and Wales License. It may be used for non-commercial purposes only, and the author's name should be attributed. The correct attribution for this article is: Monica Horten (2009)Luddite House of Lords supports 3-strikes 3 December 2009. 








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