Rush to pass digital bill will ‘sidestep democracy’

The digital economy bill is a highly controversial bill. Many of us believe that it threatens to severely infringe fundamental human rights, by allowing the disconnection of internet accounts for alleged copyright infringement, and also by new ‘website blocking’ laws that could result in new ways to suppress free speech and legitimate activity. There are also dangers to business, through restrictions on provision on open wifi networks, that could damage our economy.

But our worry today is that none of this will be properly debated by parliament. Last week, Harriet Harman MP failed to give the commons any reassurances that this important, complex and controversial Bill will be properly scrutinised by our elected MPs.

Democracy and accountability will be sidestepped if this bill is rushed through and amended without debate during the so-called ‘wash-up’ process. The thousands of people we know to be contacting their MPs with concerns will find their faith in politicians even further undermined.

For these reasons we are writing to ask that those most controversial parts of the bill – clauses 11-18, covering ‘technical measures’ and court orders for website blocking – either be properly debated, or be taken out of the Bill and subjected to genuine democratic scrutiny in a new parliament.

Signatories:

Anthony Barnett, openDemocracy
Billy Bragg
Lord Errol
Bridget Fox, Liberal Democrat PPC, Islington South & Finsbury
Jo Glanville, Editor, Index on Censorship
John Grogan MP
Andrew Heaney, Director of Regulation, TalkTalk
Julian Huppert, Liberal Democrat PPC, Cambridge
Julia and Simon Indelicate, The Indelicates
Jim Killock, Executive Director, Open Rights Group
Nicholas Lansman, Secretary General, ISPA
Graham Linehan, screenwriter
Caroline Lucas, Leader, Green Party
Baroness Miller
Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner
Tom Watson MP
Lord Whitty, Chair, Consumer Focus

Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg: among the signatories.

A group of senior public figures have called on the government to abandon its plan to push through controversial digital economy bill before the election, amid claims that the move could “sidestep” the democratic process.

Earlier this week the government revealed that it wants to force the digital economy bill – which includes the controversial “three strikes” rule to cut off the internet connections of those accused of illegal file sharing – into the statute books in the next few weeks.

While it usually takes far longer to create an act of parliament, thanks to the public debates held by MPs, the secretary of state for business, Lord Mandelson, plans speed up the process by making use of a controversial parliamentary technique known as the “wash-up”.

Under those rules, party whips bypass the usual debating process and make a series of horse trades in order to get proposals into law before parliament dissolves ahead of a general election.

That proposal has already caused concern, but today a coalition including a cross-party group of MPs and peers – as well as figures from the business world and entertainment industry – said that short circuiting the democratic process could have disastrous side effects.

In an open letter the group suggests that the controversial nature of the legislation – which it says “threatens to severely infringe fundamental human rights” and could introduce “website blocking” measure that impede free speech – must face the full scrutiny of parliament before it becomes law.

Among the signatories are musician Billy Bragg, human rights activist Peter Tatchell and writer Graham Linehan, who helped create comedy series including Father Ted and The IT Crowd. They are joined by a number of activists and campaigners, as well as politicians drawn from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party.

“Our worry today is that none of this will be properly debated by parliament,” says the letter. “Last week Harriet Harman failed to give the Commons any reassurances that this important, complex and controversial bill will be properly scrutinised by our elected MPs.”

“Democracy and accountability will be sidestepped if this bill is rushed through and amended without debate during the so-called ‘wash-up’ process. The thousands of people we know to be contacting their MPs with concerns will find their faith in politicians even further undermined.”

The plans, which first became public last autumn, have caused controversy at almost every turn.

As well as the three strikes rule and measures to take down websites accused of infringing copyright – which could potentially result in the closure of major web destinations such as YouTube – Lord Mandelson has also sought the power to alter copyright law without the assent of parliament.

In addition, it has also been suggested that the bill’s measures to prosecute the owners of internet connections used for illegal file sharing could hit anybody who provides web access – such as universities, libraries and cafes, as well as those individuals who leave their home Wi-Fi connections open.

While the made it through three readings in the House of Lords, it was not without serious objections. Lord Puttnam, the film producer, said he had faced “an extraordinary degree of lobbying” over the proposals, while others questioned the revelation that an amendment used language British music industry body the BPI.

Earlier this week BPI chief Geoff Taylor said that it was imperative that the legislation is passed before the election.

“It is vital for the future of the UK’s creative sector that the digital economy bill becomes law before the dissolution of parliament,” he said.

However, the open letter suggests that the bill’s most controversial elements must receive proper debate or be removed from the bill entirely and left until after the forthcoming election.

guardian

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