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Out-Law Analysis 2 min. read

The legislative farce of the Digital Economy Bill

OPINION: They say that there are two things you should never see made: laws and sausages. As a tiny group of MPs discussed the Digital Economy Bill last night, the stomachs of an online audience turned.

Yesterday's announcement of a general election next month has put this highly-controversial Bill on a fast-track process where it does not belong. It is likely to be passed tonight as part of this process which is known as 'wash up'.

'Wash up' refers to the last few days of a Parliament, after the election has been announced but before dissolution. Bills not passed before the dissolution are lost – so in the wash up period, outstanding bills that are unopposed are rushed through. It suits uncontroversial laws. It does not suit a law like the Digital Economy Bill.

Of the country's 643 MPs, just 40 turned up for yesterday's Second Reading, of whom only 10 stayed throughout proceedings, according to a critic who kept count. The whole thing was watched on Parliament Live TV and participants were silently heckled by more than 5,000 Twitter users.

The Digital Economy Bill introduces powers that may see households disconnected from the internet on accusations of file-sharing and websites blocked by British ISPs because they stand accused of copyright infringement.

Coffee shops, airports and hotels are also given reason to rethink their Wi-Fi services. "It cannot be right for us to cut off the whole of Starbucks just because one person went in for a cup of coffee and illegally shared files," observed Conservative MP John Whittingdale last night.

The arguments for and against these measures received short shrift in Parliament. It seems that passing the Bill before next month's general election has taken priority over what the thing actually says. Each party acknowledges that the Bill is being rushed yet it seems that nothing will stand in its way.

Shadow culture secretary Jeremy Hunt called the Bill "a weak, dithering and incompetent attempt to breathe life into Britain's digital economy", while shadow science and innovation minister Adam Afriyie referred to the bill as "botched legislation".

But Hunt will not oppose the Bill. He explained that if the Conservatives come to power in May, his party will fix any problems with the Bill, "if it turns out that the legislation is flawed." In wash up, he is seeking only changes to clauses on orphan works, regional broadcasting and Ofcom's powers.

The Liberal Democrats, who said last month that the Bill should be scrapped and reintroduced in the next Parliament, had just one representative at last night's debate, Don Foster.

The MP for Bath expressed concern about the technical measures that the Bill enables, i.e. the powers to disconnect users. But his solution is broadly the same as Hunt's.

"The next Parliament deserves to be given the maximum opportunity to scrutinise any such proposals," said Foster. The Lib Dems will back the Bill tonight if they can get that assurance and others (they want a planned consultation process for the site blocking measures extended to the disconnection powers; and they want extra safeguards for Wi-Fi operators).

The text of the five-hour debate (243-page PDF) makes for a disheartening read. It's like a case study in how to pass bad law in a hurry. Whatever you think of this Bill, it presents a significant change to digital rights and remedies in the UK. It deserves proper debate and proper scrutiny. It should not be passed.

By Struan Robertson, editor of OUT-LAW.COM. The views expressed are Struan's and do not necessarily represent those of Pinsent Masons. You can follow Struan at Twitter.com/struan99.

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