Out-Law News 4 min. read

New Digital Economy Bill laid before the UK parliament

Plans for establishing a universal service obligation (USO) on broadband, governing the installation and maintenance of telecoms infrastructure, facilitating public sector data sharing and regulating direct marketing activities have been published before the UK parliament.

The Digital Economy Bill (151-page / 631KB PDF) will help the UK become "the most digital nation in the world", the UK government has said. The Bill was one of a raft of new laws that the Queen announced the government would introduce in a speech in the UK parliament in May.

Telecoms expert Reg Dhanjal of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said the Bill was "the first legislative step" needed to implement the UK government's commitment to deliver a USO on broadband. Last year it said that homes and businesses across the UK will have a "legal right to request a connection to broadband with speeds of 10 Mbps, no matter where they live", by the end of the current parliament in 2020.

"It is worth noting that the proposed Digital Economy Bill does not in itself introduce a legal right to a 10Mbps broadband connection but is the first legislative step in the journey," Dhanjal said. "When the provisions of the Digital Economy Bill are enacted, it will give the secretary of state the explicit power to introduce a broadband universal service obligation, but a minimum speed is not set out in that Bill. The universal service order, which will specify the minimum level of service for broadband together with any small print that relates to it, is expected to be developed in 2017."

According to the Bill, broadband providers would be forced to automatically compensate customers if they fall short of the standard of service outlined under the new USO.

In April Ofcom, the UK's telecoms regulator, opened a consultation seeking industry input on how a new broadband USO should be designed. It has said it expects the initial USO of 10Mbps to rise over time.

The Digital Economy Bill also contains plans for a new Electronic Communications Code. The Code would replace the one that exists at the moment and set out rights and obligations in relation to the deployment and maintenance of mobile phone masts and other telecoms infrastructure.

The new Code would reduce the freedom of landowners to charge premium prices for the use of their property by telecoms companies. Rents will in effect be regulated based on the underlying value of the land, as it is to be calculated on the basis of what "willing buyer would pay a willing seller" and must not take account of "the value to the operator of the right or agreement" or what the operator's intended use of the land is.

The Code will also make it easier for telecoms companies to upgrade and share their equipment, such as masts or cables, without having to pay landowners extra. However, landowners will be able to object to equipment upgrades or sharing if there is more than "a minimal adverse impact" on the appearance of the apparatus or if they would face an additional burden as a result of the works.

'Additional burden' could mean anything that "has an additional adverse effect on the [landowner's] enjoyment of the land, or [which] causes [them] additional loss, damage or expense", according to the proposed Code.

The new Code will only apply to new agreements when it comes into force. Disputes in relation to the Code will be heard by specialist tribunals.

The Digital Economy Bill, if passed by parliament, would also introduce a new obligation on the UK's information commissioner to set out a code of practice to regulate direct marketing activities. The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) published new guidance on direct marketing earlier this year.

Plans to promote the sharing and use of citizen's data across the public sector are also outlined in the Bill, and take forward plans outlined by the government earlier this year. In March the Cabinet Office held a consultation on proposals designed to ensure data can used for purposes such as improving the welfare of citizens, aiding research and combating fraud, in line with specified data privacy safeguards.

The government said: "Valuable opportunities to help people are often missed because of the way in which government stores, manages and uses data. This means we are falling behind on the services we are able to provide, and wasting public money. New clauses proposed in the Bill will support local bodies deliver services based on local needs… Proportionate and secure sharing of information will give government the facts and figures needed to develop and deliver policies and services to the right people at the right time, whilst ensuring that data is kept safe and secure."

The Bill also includes plans to impose obligations on companies that provide access to online pornography in the UK to ensure that only adults aged 18 or over can access that material. Companies could face a £250,000 fine or penalty totalling up to 5% of their annual turnover, whichever is greatest, for breaching the age-verification rules.

Online copyright infringers could also face up to 10 years in prison under provisions contained in the Bill. Owners of registered design rights will also be able to include an "internet link" alongside their designs to notify others of their rights in their designs as a means of clamping down on so-called innocent infringements where infringers have not been aware of the presence of design rights.

UK minister for the digital economy Ed Vaizey said: "We want the UK to be a place where technology ceaselessly transforms the economy, society and government. The UK has always been at the forefront of technological change, and the measures in the Digital Economy Bill provide the necessary framework to make sure we remain world leaders."

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