Internet users who illegally download films and music will run the risk of being cut off from the web under new laws published by the Government today.
Others who abuse copyright laws could also have their internet connection slowed down as part of an attempt by Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, to fight back against online piracy, which costs the creative industries billions each year.
Under the powers set out in the Digital Economy Bill, finally published yesterday, internet service providers (ISPs) will be obliged to send letters to those suspected of online piracy. The owners of illegally downloaded material will also be entitled to the name and address of serial offenders, allowing them to take legal action against them.
Other measures set out in the bill include the outlawing of the sale of video games suitable for 12 and older to under-age children. However, despite a year of intense debate around reforming Britain’s media industry, key decisions over the switchover to digital radio and the funding of local independent news have been left unresolved. It is thought the controversial issues were omitted to help speed the bill through the Commons before the next election.
However, though the measures are supported by the Tories, doubts have already arisen that the bill can reach the statute books by the time of the next poll, expected in the Spring. The Government will be prioritising bills designed to reform social care and education, leaving precious little time in the Commons to push through the new anti-piracy laws.
Jeremy Hunt, the shadow Culture Secretary, said that the bill was a “rushed job” drawn up by a Government living on borrowed time. “It kicks so many decisions into the long grass that we've ended up with a dithering economy bill," he said.
Stephen Timms, the minister for Digital Britain, disputed that time was running out to pass the new laws. “We remain very firmly committed to the vision set out in the Digital Britain report in June. I think it’s an impressive document and we will deliver it,” he said. “We’re on track for Digital Britain.”
The bill contains measures allowing Lord Mandelson to force ISPs to apply “technical measures” against offenders. He would need to ask parliament before ISPs could be pressed into disconnecting repeat offenders and the powers will only be used if less severe punishments fail to produce a 70 per cent reduction in illegal filesharing. An appeals procedure will also be put in place for those who believe they have been treated unfairly.
“Better protecting our creative communities from the threat of online infringement will ensure existing and emerging talent is rewarded, and will bring new choices for online consumers,” Lord Mandelson said.
Music industry figures welcomed the bill and called on the measures to be implemented quickly. “The introduction of the Digital Economy Bill is an important milestone towards a sustainable future for British music in the digital age,” said Geoff Taylor, chief executive of the British Phonographic Industry (BPI). “We can all be proud in Britain of our world-beating music industry, and we hope that all parties will work to ensure the measures are swiftly implemented to spur further investment in our legal online market.”
But privacy campaigners have vowed to fight the changes. Andrew Robinson, the leader of the pro-file sharing party, Pirate Party UK, described the measures as an attack on free speech. The Government also faces opposition from the former digital engagement minister, Tom Watson.
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