Opposition is growing to clauses in the Digital Economy Bill aimed at stopping illegal file-sharing.
Web heavyweights Google, Facebook, Yahoo and eBay have asked business secretary Peter Mandelson to scrap Clause 17 from the Digital Economy Bill, saying it could give government "unprecedented and sweeping powers" to change copyright laws arbitrarily.
Civil rights activist group Liberty says it has "significant concerns" over the approach taken in the Bill to online infringement of copyright. It believes it limits rights to receive and impart information, to fair trial, and to protection of property.
The UK's Internet Services Providers' Association (ISPA) said, "The proposals grant far too much control to the secretary of state, who will have the power to make specific recommendations on costs and impose an obligation on ISPs to use technical sanctions."
Privacy campaigner Open Rights Group executive director Jim Killock, said the clauses appeared to show the government was preparing for the rapid introduction of enforcement procedures under the international Anti-counterfeiting Trade Agreement, currently being negotiated behind closed doors.
Francis Davey, a lawyer who specialises in technology issues, wrote on the Open Rights Group website that there was no "democractic control" over who could be cut off from the net, nor did the home secretary have to consult with anyone in making such a decision.
A Department of Business Innovation & Skills (BIS) spokesperson said businesses would not find government had suddenly taken extensive digital powers. "There are substantial constraints on how the power can be used, with requirements for a consultation and votes in both houses of parliament before anything can happen. Also the powers can not be used to create or modify a criminal offence."
The spokesman said Google, Facebook, eBay UK and Yahoo were important contributors to Britain's digital economy and shared the government ambitions set out in Digital Britain.
"The government is pleased they have taken recent steps to work with rights holders in ensuring consumers can enjoy continued access to content," the spokesman said.
The law had to keep pace with technology, so that the government could act if new ways of "seriously infringing" copyright developed, she said.
At present, the six largest ISPs (BT, Virgin, Orange, Tiscali, BSkyB and Carphone Warehouse) are signed up to a memorandum of understanding that means once they receive reasonable evidence of illegal file-sharing, they will send letters notifying the account holder at the relevant IP address to stop.
ISPA secretary general Nicolas Lansman told the House of Lords during the second reading of the Bill that tens of thousands of letters had been sent out, but he was unaware of how effective they had been.
"Did the government see a huge drop in file-sharing? The Digital Economy Bill says we should do the same thing again, so I presume that there is some analysis of the trial," he said.
He said the legislation was being fast-tracked by the government and would do little to address the underlying problem, which was that new ways of licensing content for use online were needed.
A BIS spokesman said the MoU signatories had blocked the release of the results, but that they had been used in developing the bill.