Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Response from my MP on objections to Digital Economy Bill

"I've had the following response from my MP, Liberal Democrat Evan Harris, to my letter pointing out my objections to the digital economy bill.
"Dear Mr Corrigan,
Thank you for your recent email about the Digital Economy Bill. Lack of effective scrutiny for legislation is something that I have a particular concern about – and on which I have been very active in Parliament – and I therefore wanted to take some time to craft a personal response to this campaign. I would like to respond firstly to the substantial concerns that remain about the Bill itself and secondly to the process by which this Bill is being rushed through
At our Conference last weekend, the Liberal Democrats overwhelmingly voted for a motion condemning the Digital Economy Bill’s website-blocking and disconnection provisions. I worked with its sponsor, Julian Huppert (our candidate for Cambridge), to promote the motion. Unlike the other two parties the Liberal Democrats are a democratic party and this motion is therefore now part of our party’s policy. The motion is too long to quote here in its entirety (although I recommend you look at it on the website http://bit.ly/LD-DEBill ) but the most significant parts are:
        Conference condemns:
        i) Website-blocking and disconnecting internet connections as a response to copyright infringement.
        ii) The threat to the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals and businesses from the monitoring of their internet activity, the potential blocking of their websites and the potential termination of their internet connections, which could lead to the closure of internet hotspots
        iii) The Digital Economy Bill for focusing on illegal file-sharing rather than on nurturing creativity
        Conference supports:
        a) The principle of net neutrality, through which all content, sites and platforms are treated equally by user access networks participating in the Internet.
        b) The rights of creators and performers to be rewarded for their work in a way that is fair, proportionate and appropriate to the medium.
        Conference therefore opposes excessive regulatory attempts to monitor, control and limit internet access or internet publication, whether at local, national, European or global level.
Within Parliament Lib Dems have been working to improve this bad legislation.
We already managed to remove the provisions to allow Lord Mandelson to change copyright law at a stroke. We attempted, with our Amendment 120A in the House of Lords which would have changed the Government’s Clause 17, to require the Government to go to the High Court to get an injunction if it wanted to require ISPs to block access to websites that persist in publishing a substantial amount of copyrighted material despite repeated requests to remove it. It creates quite a high threshold that the Government would have to overcome, and ensures that – if this provision is to remain – then there must be proper scrutiny and due process. It requires that all of the following conditions are met:
        a) The website is holding a "substantial proportion" of copyrighted material;
        b) The operator has been contacted a number of times and asked to remove the content but failed to do so;
        c) The copyright holder has made a reasonable effort to ensure there are legal ways of accessing the content online;
        d) Human rights implications, such as the right to freedom of expression, have been taken into consideration by the Court.
Even with this amendment, I believe that the Bill still represents a threat to freedom of expression. I am confident that, due to the controversial nature of the Bill, it will not be able to be passed in the likely remaining 8 sitting days of this Parliament, or that this measure will go through in the "wash-up" when parliament is about to be resolved and the parties negotiate what bits of bills can get through. However I am not complacent about this and it is important that organisations such as the Open Rights Group keep up the pressure to ensure that both Labour and the Conservatives are aware of the electoral costs of allowing this legislation through.
Particularly following the Conference vote, I would like to take the opportunity to highlight the fact that it is now Liberal Democrat policy to oppose:
        a) Website blocking and disconnection
        b) Sweeping monitoring of internet activity
        c) Threats to net neutrality
Liberal Democrats are instinctively opposed to attacks on civil liberties and censorship – and I will continue to vote against these extreme proposals whenever they come up.
For many years I have been a strong advocate working for better scrutiny of legislation in Parliament. In the abstract it seems like something of a technical concern, but in reality it has a fundamental impact on the legislation passed in this country. There are countless examples of important Bills where whole groups of amendments or clauses are never even debated let alone voted on in the elected House. The reason for this is that the Government has control over the entirety of Parliament’s timetable. It cannot be right that the Government regulates (and indeed inhibits) Parliament’s ability to scrutinise the Executive – and it seems fairly obvious that it’s the job of legislators to scrutinise legislation.
Recently as a leading member of the elected Wright Committee on the Reform of Parliament I was successful in pushing through an amendment, on a cross-party basis, to establish a "House Business Committee" at the start of the next Parliament. This would ensure that the House itself, not the Government whips could decide its own timetable, while providing for sufficient time for the Government to put forward the business that it was elected on, and mandated to carry out. Scrutiny will obviously depend on good MPs to scrutinise the legislation, but this change will at least give them the opportunity to do so – an opportunity they are currently denied. A report of my efforts in this area can be found in this article by Henry Porter in the Observer: http://bit.ly/cjpDmN
However, another part of the problem for timetabling is that Parliament’s time is very unpredictable, as the Prime Minister can call an election at any time. When the election is called there is therefore the issue of what to do with legislation that Parliament has spent a lot of time on, but not yet passed into law. Fixed-term Parliaments would get round the problem posed by this and the horse-trading the parties (commonly known as the "wash-up") could no longer even pretend to be justified. I, along with the rest of my party, have long supported fixed-term Parliaments.
Accordingly I think I have a strong record of action supporting my belief that legislation should not be passed without sufficient and effective scrutiny. But in this case, I have additional concerns about the legislation in question.
Thanks once again for contacting me about this important issue, and thank you for keeping up the pressure against this unacceptable legislation.
Yours sincerely
Evan Harris"
He's a little confused about the detail - supporting amendment 120a whilst simultaneously support the emergency motion opposing web blocking - but seems to be opposed to the digital economy bill going through in the wash up of legislation before the election. I've responded:
"Dear Dr Harris,
Thanks for your response and I wish you luck with your efforts to block the passing of the digital economy bill in its current form before the election.  There seems to be a little confusion, though. I would just point out that amendment 120a, which you seem to support, was the web censorship amendment that has raised so many concerns, not least amongst your colleagues in the Liberal Democrats who supported the nicely conceived emergency motion you also cite http://bit.ly/LD-DEBill, opposing amendment 120a.
I appreciate it’s a busy time for MPs but if anything this reinforces the need to avoid rushing complex legislation through parliament without proper scrutiny, when even those with a well balanced perspective on the preferred shape of such regulations can misinterpret some of the key details, in the thick of the noise and furious activity that constitutes the lead in to a general election."

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