There are times, as a lobbyist, that your heart sinks. An issue comes up which is apparently so technical and wonky that you can’t believe that you will ever persuade anyone to lock onto it.
So it is with the Digital Economy Act.
Don’t stop reading. This matters.
The Digital Economy Act was rushed through parliament in what is affectionately known as ‘wash-up’ before the last general election. This is a complicated and controversial piece of legislation which deals with, among other things, reforming copyright law to enable it to deal with digital communication and was one of those Bills which really needed proper and detailed scrutiny.
It didn’t get it.
Instead we got an Act which, astonishingly, seems to treat universities, public libraries, schools and colleges, all of which provide internet access to a large number of people, exactly as if they were single households.
This is a real problem. The Act is intended to help clamp down on copyright infringement. If you download something illegally, the Act requires your Internet Service Provider to notify you (as a ‘subscriber’) that they have detected an infringement. If you get three such notices you could be placed on a ‘copyright infringement list’.
So what happens if you get placed on this list? Well ultimately, the penalty could include having the speed and capacity of your internet connection reduced – or even having your internet access suspended.
You can imagine what this would mean for a university, where thousands of students and researchers depend on internet access for their work.
And while you would hope that in a private household the three-strikes-and-you’re-out approach would give time for parents, for example, to bring their children into line on illegal downloads, in a university library the three infringement limit could be reached very rapidly.
This is despite the very stringent measures which all university libraries take to ensure that the people who use their services understand and respect copyright law. Universities have very detailed ‘acceptable use policies’ and filter undesirable websites. But the scale of internet use makes compliance a very different challenge than for the single household.
This is an absurd situation. Fortunately, the minister responsible Ed Vaizey MP, seems to get this. Last year, the group of organisations (including Universities UK) which are worried about this received a written assurance that “libraries and universities will not be within scope of the obligations” of the Act. But so far Ofcom has done nothing to create a separate category for libraries and universities – despite having the powers to do so.
Why not? Perhaps because this is difficult, technical territory. It’s hard to get people to focus on it.
We have to change that if this Act is to be applied in a sensible and workable way.
If you want to know more, check out CILIP’s excellent guidance.