Wednesday, 7 April 2010

White 'wash-up' - democracy and the Digital Economy Bill?

Last evening, the Digital Economy Bill was given a cursory Second Hearing in the House of Commons by a handful of MPs.  Normally, a Bill this size would normally be expected to have as many as eight hearings given that it touches on a wide range of issues including the function of media regulator Ofcom, the state of copyright, the role of Channel 4, the protection of children online, amongst others. Now that a general election has been called, this period is often referred to as the 'wash-up', during which any remaining bills are pushed through the House with little time for proper consideration.  The Labour party whips were in evidence in that the front-bench politicians (notably Ben Bradshaw and Stephen Timms) refused to engage in much meaningful debate.  It was left to committed back benchers and the occasional Tory to stand up for the electorate's wishes, who were given little time to make their valid points heard, hence I prefer to think of this as a white-wash-up.

There has been widespread criticisms of the Bill from many quarters.  Software pioneer, Richard Stallman, noted that there was a distinct irony that Gordon Brown was promising to bring broadband to everyone whilst also threatening to punish those consumers for actually using it.  The Open Rights Group and 38Degrees also took out full page adverts in yesterday's Times and Guardian hoping to voice the concerns of the public.  This was the result of a call for donations in which over £20,000 was raised in under 2 days.  They were hopeful that such prominent adverts would be noticed by MPs.

Digital Economy Bill advert by Open Rights Group in The Times 6/4/2010

All we ask for is that the Bill is delayed unitl a time when it can be given proper cosidneration rather tahn pushed through during the 'wash-up'. Jeremy Hunt (Conservatives) stated in Parliament yesterday that if this party got in, they would spend a good deal of time after the election editing the Bill so that it would be fit for purpose.  If they know it is flawed, then surely it is better to fix it before passing it?

The hashtag #debill was a trending topic on Twitter at the time as more of the electorate spent their afternoon and evening dedicated to criticisms of the Bill.  If only our MPs seemed to care as much as the public.  Several Twitterers captured screen grabs of the House showing how few MPs bothered to turn up, notably York University student, Greg Ebdon, aka Vanderdecken. You can see his images below (which he posted to Twitpic).  The URL for these tweets are here and here:

There has been a site created by Stef Lewanowski which highlights exactly how few MPs bothered to turn up and their stance with regards to the Bill, here.  The statistics speak for themselves:

  • 1 Bill
  • 20000+ letters written
  • 646 MPs
  • 40 MPs turned up
  • 10 stayed throughout
  • 5251 Twitterers
  • 16180 tweets

Today, a Third Hearing is scheduled.  This might just be one of the last times we have the opportunity to voice our concerns before the two leading parties aquiesce to the wishes of the major music labels.  I've written to my MP, David Miliband, yet again - he was conspicuous by his absence yesterday.  The email is below:
Dear David Miliband,

I was severely disappointed with the poor turnout for the Second Hearing of the Digital Economy Bill yesterday.  At no point did the number of elected representatives exceed 40 members, and in some cases fell below 15, several of whom were Scottish MPs who have noted that aspects of the Bill may actually be illegal in Scotland.  Irrespective of this, the Bill is far-ranging and ill-considered in it's current form and proposes a number of changes which deserve more than a handful of readings in the House of Commons.

Yesterday, the Labour party front-benchers, notably Harriet Harman, may have suggested that this Bill has had considerable consideration in the House of Lords, yet their sheer volume of amendments suggested by that debate warrants a similar, if not greater, level of scrutiny by MPs.  There were a number of MPs from the back-benches (particularly Tom Watson and Austin Mitchell) and the Conservative party (in this instance John Redwood) who suggested that a delay of several months might be beneficial in that it would allow for the Bill to be given due consideration.

It would makes sense to fix the Bill, after detailed consideration, before forcing it through in the current guise. The volume of traffic on popular websites like Twitter last evening, all focussed on the outrage of the voting public.  Make no mistake, the Digital Economy Bill will determine the voting patterns of many people invested in the technology and the creative sectors.  Poorly planned policies that go against the wishes of the electorate are hardly vote-winners. I trust that at the Third Hearing you will call for a sense with this issue

Yours sincerely,
Robert Jewitt

If Miliband's previous form is anything to go by, the best I can hope for is an out of office response.  However, the Open Rights Group are determined to fight this issue even if the Bill is passed.  They and I urge you to write to your MP now.


Prof Burkart said...

Good luck with all your efforts against this bill. You are leading and showing the way forward in the struggles for cyberliberties. -Patrick Burkart

Rob said...

Many thanks, Patrick - it means a lot. In the interests of full disclosure, I've been motivated by several sections of your most recent book to get involved with challenging the various affronts to our liberties posed by changes to the enforcement of copyright (as it applies to music).

Unfortunately, the Bill was passed last night despite each clause not being given a full and proper consideration. It's going to take yet more months of active campaigning via the Open Rights Group and related parties to come to some kind of fair and reasonable solution. This battle is over but the larger fight continues.

Prof Burkart said...

The ACTA's legitimacy is questionable. It seems to float independently of any multilateral organization and has been purposefully kept untransparent. Let's hope NZ and Australia can hold out at this point.

Thanks for your kind words about M&C!

- Patrick

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