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Bitter debate precedes approval of Digital Economy Bill

Ian Grant

Just 236 out of more than 650 MPs turned up to pass the controversial Digital Economy Bill by a margin of 189 to 47.

An acrimonious three-hour debate saw MPs on all sides complaining that the government had left too little time for scrutiny of the bill before parliament closed for the election on 6 May.

Reservations in the House and more than 20,000 letters to MPs prompted the government to adopt a process that will allow the next parliament to look afresh at key clauses before they become law.

These include clauses that deal with "orphan works", works whose ownership is unknown, as well as procedures to notify and disconnect alleged online copyright pirates. The next parliament may also introduce measures to protect universities, libraries and public Wi-Fi operators if someone uses their facilities to copy or share files illegally.

Finance secretary Stephen Timms said many MPs' concerns would be ironed out by the revision process, by negotiations to establish "initial obligations" and a code of conduct for rights holders, internet service providers and subscribers, and by the time it would take for someone to actually be cut off (temporarily) from the internet.

But losses due to piracy of more than £1bn a year to the creative industries were at stake, he said.

Those assurance did not stop MPs describing the process by which the bill went through parliament as a stitch-up by the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat front benches as part of the "wash up" to pass essential bills before parliament is dissolved.

In a tweet just after the vote, Labour MP Tom Watson, who proposed a number of "probing amendments", later withdrawn, said, "First time I've ever broken the whip in the chamber. I feel physically sick."

Labour MP John Grogan paid tribute to Lord Carter, whose original whitepaper preceded the bill. Labour's Jeremy Corbin said business secretary Peter Mandelson's contributions to the bill, mainly in bringing in a "three strikes" clause for copyright offenders, had "completely distorted" the bill as originally developed.

Grogan said three ministers in the business, innovation and skills department, had encouraged him to keep questioning the bill. They were "deeply unhappy" with the language, especially on anti-piracy measures, he said.

LibDem John Henning, who said he was a member of the BPI, one of the main groups that lobbied for the bill, described the bill as a "complete mess". He said rights holders had probably overestimated how much money they would make because of the bill becoming law.

Henning suggested that the bill would allow the government to censor information by blocking access to the Wikileaks whistleblowers' website if Wikileaks provided access to government documents.

What was really needed was a review of copyright law and a new definition of "fair use" in the internet age, he said.

The next 30 days will determine whether the next government has the appetite for the task.


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