Secretary of State Peter Mandelson is planning to introduce changes to the Digital Economy Bill now under debate in Parliament. These changes will give the Secretary of State (Mandelson — or his successor in the next government) the power to make “secondary legislation” (legislation that is passed without debate) to amend the provisions of Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (1988).
What that means is that an unelected official would have the power to do anything without Parliamentary oversight or debate, provided it was done in the name of protecting copyright.
Of course it’s not unusual for New Labour to sidestep the rule of law. They did it with the Extradition Act, for which Gary McKinnon is paying a price, they’re doing it with the Independent Safeguarding Authority, for which we’re all paying a slow price, and they did it with Iraq, for which the whole world has paid a price. Unelected Peter Mandelson plans to give himself unlimited power to make laws and not have them subjected to scrutiny or approval by a single elected representative. It’s not just unfair, it’s a crime against democracy. To expand:
1. The Secretary of State would get the power to create new remedies for online infringements (for example, he could create jail terms for file-sharing, or create a “three-strikes” plan that costs entire families their internet access if any member stands accused of infringement)
2. The Secretary of State would get the power to create procedures to “confer rights” for the purposes of protecting rightsholders from online infringement. (for example, record labels and movie studios can be given investigative and enforcement powers that allow them to compel ISPs, libraries, companies and schools to turn over personal information about Internet users, and to order those companies to disconnect users, remove websites, block URLs, etc)
3. The Secretary of State would get the power to “impose such duties, powers or functions on any person as may be specified in connection with facilitating online infringement” (for example, ISPs could be forced to spy on their users, or to have copyright lawyers examine every piece of user-generated content before it goes live; also, copyright “militias” can be formed with the power to police copyright on the web)
These are all basic constitutional infringements – and for what threat? With the ISA it was to combat paedophilia which is apparently so widespread it threatens every vulnerable person in or around a workplace. Except it doesn’t. With Iraq it was to protect us all from weapons of mass destruction. Except there weren’t any. Now Mandelson is gunning for absolute power because piracy threatens what? Our culture? No. Our creative industries? Have you seen just how well the film industry is doing? He’s been told file sharing threatens the excess profits of New Labour’s corporate friends, and he’s making an unprecedented power grab to stop it. Andy Robinson of the Pirate Party UK asks:
What exactly is the ‘first tier tribunal’ referred to in the Digital Economy Bill? If that phrase does not mean ‘a court of law with a judge, jury and a presumption of innocence until proven guilty’, what is the justification for throwing out one of the major pillars of the British legal system?
Why should consumers not open their internet connection over wifi as a service to the community, and why shoul they not be treated as common carriers when they do so?
Why are libraries being given the right to ‘lend’ audio books digitally, but not the right to lend music and films digitally?
Why is file sharing good when libraries do it and bad when the public does it?
How will disconnecting people from the internet possibly help the bill’s stated goal of ‘securing the UK’s position as one of the world’s leading digital knowledge economies’?
Why did the text of the bill appear on a record industry owned website before it appeared on any government site?
The bill includes a provision for unappointed, unelected, monopoly collecting societies to “assume a mandate to collect fees on behalf of rights holders who have not specifically signed up to that society.” Why should doing this be considered anything less than criminally defrauding the people these fees will be collected from and stealing copyright (in the true sense of claiming ownership, not the way it is misused as a synonym for infringement)?
Why does the government see file sharing as both to trivial that it can be dealt with by just sending a letter and simultaneously so serious that it warrants the imposition of a new £50,000 fine?
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, why does the bill not even mention the concept of ‘fair use’?
These are vital questions which should concern us all. In addition to constitutional norms, Mandelson is attacking basic cultural norms. My question is this – why should the concerns of Big Media trump a) the rule of law and b) the concerns of internet file sharers, whom it has been shown spend more on films and music? Rupert Goodwins quite rightly says:
industry bodies, such as the BPI, FAST and so on, [will be given] powers of investigation tantamount to those of the police force. The risk of copyright infringment would be enough to force any company to patrol its actions and offerings, closing down anything that might land them in the dock. The freedom of the Internet would be gone. It is placing the future of the Net, with the force of law, in the hands of those who depend on artificial scarcity. It is antithetical to everything that matters in the digital world.
Freedom in the real world has been under concerted attack by these people, and they’re now extending their control to the digital world. They must be stopped at all costs.
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