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Digital Economy Bill passed by House of Commons

The Digital Economy Bill has been passed by the House of Commons and will become law before the general election. The Bill was passed amidst criticisms from inside and outside of Parliament about the lack of Parliamentary time and debate given to it.

The Bill was designed to implement last summer's Digital Britain Report, itself the result of a long and extensive research and consultation process. Its most controversial proposals, though, were added in later without such consultation.

Business Secretary Lord Mandelson is widely believed to have been behind the insertion into the Bill of a provision to cut off the internet access to households where one user has been accused of copyright infringing behaviour.

The power for ministers to force internet service providers (ISPs) to disconnect households or businesses has been controversial and digital rights groups have attacked the fact that it can be carried out without court oversight under the plans.

Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers introduced a clause allowing for the blocking of websites which were being used for mass copyright infringement when the law was debated in the House of Lords.

Though they retracted that amendment, the Government proposed a very similar one soon after which extends to the blocking of online locations that are 'likely to' be used for infringement.

Neither of these proposals, seen by activists as the most damaging to the rights of web users, were in the original Digital Britain Report.

"This is an utter disgrace. This is an attack on everyone's right to communicate, work and gain an education," said Jim Killock, executive director of protest group the Open Rights Group. "Politicians have shown themselves to be incompetent and completely out of touch with an entire generation's values."

The Bill was passed in an accelerated and truncated Parliamentary process called the 'wash up', used when a general election has been announced to rush legislation through before the break up of Parliament.

The wash up can only be used for unopposed legislation, and in return for their support the Conservative Party demanded the exclusion of Clause 43 from the Bill. This related to orphan works – copyrighted material whose owner cannot be identified or found – and was opposed by photographers, who feared it would permit their work to be used without their permission or without payment.

Clause 18, which contained the website-blocking proposal, was removed and its content relocated to a new Clause 1 of the Bill.

The Bill had its second reading in the Commons on Tuesday, and yesterday had both its Committee stage and third reading in the Commons, where it was passed by 189 votes to 47, largely through the votes of MPs who had not attended the debate.

Other Government plans that were taken out of laws passing through the wash up process included the funding from the licence fee of new news consortia in the regions and its plans to impose a £6 per year phone line tax to pay for the building of a superfast broadband network.

Minister Stephen Timms told the House of Commons that if re-elected the Government would reinstate the phone line tax after the election.

Editor's note, 08/04/2010: The Digital Economy Bill was passed by the House of Lords at 4pm today without further changes. I argued yesterday that the way this Bill has been passed is a farce.

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