Out-Law News 4 min. read

New UK Digital Economy Bill to address broadband, IP, government data use and direct marketing issues

The UK government will introduce new legislation to support nationwide access to broadband services, improved sharing of data across government departments, more consistent enforcement of intellectual property rights and a clampdown on unsolicited marketing.

The Digital Economy Bill (85-page / 898KB PDF) was one of a raft of new laws that the Queen announced that the government intends to introduce in the next year in a speech in the UK parliament on Wednesday.

The government said the aim of the Bill is to "make the UK a world leader in digital provision – a place where technology ceaselessly transforms the economy, society and government".

The Bill will give the government the power to impose a new broadband universal service obligation (USO), according to the plans. The new USO would give "all citizens and businesses the legal right to have a fast broadband connection installed", the government said.

"This would work similarly to the landline telephone USO, and just like for landlines there would be a reasonable cost threshold above which the very remotest properties may be expected to contribute to the cost of the installation," it said. "The government expects the minimum speed to be at least 10Mbps initially, and the Bill would also include a power to direct Ofcom to review the speed over time to make sure it is still sufficient for modern life."

The government outlined its intention to introduce a broadband USO in November last year. At the time 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.

The existing USO for internet access requires that the public is given access to internet services at speeds of at least 28.8 Kbps, which is equivalent to a basic dial-up connection.

Last month Ofcom, the UK's telecoms regulator, opened a consultation seeking industry input on how a new broadband USO should be designed.

Expert in telecoms contracts Andrew McMillan of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said: "The rollout of high-speed broadband to rural areas is a long-standing ambition of the government. One issue to be settled is how those plans will be funded but we understand there are plans at foot for that too."

The government said that the Digital Economy Bill would also contain a new Electronic Communications Code, which sets out the rules governing the installation and maintenance of electronic communications infrastructure, such as mobile phone masts. The government set out its specific plans for a new Electronic Communications Code on Tuesday.

Telecoms law expert Reg Dhanjal of Pinsent Masons said: "The proposed new Electronic Communications Code will regulate the rent that landowners can charge communications providers for the installation and maintenance of communications infrastructure, tying this rent to the underlying value of the land. Communications providers have lobbied for these rents to be regulated on the basis that they are a significant cost and high rents restrict their ability to roll out fast reliable connectivity which new technologies are increasingly reliant on. These providers have been quick to praise the proposed changes but have asked for the legislation to be brought forward as quickly as possible."

Plans to make it easier for government departments and public sector bodies to share citizen data will also be set out in the new Bill, it said. The Cabinet Office held a consultation exercise earlier this year 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 Digital Economy Bill will also include new rules that will require companies to ensure they have people's consent before engaging in direct marketing activities, it said. The government will also ensure through the Bill that the information commissioner is "empowered to impose fines on those who break the rules".

The Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations already impose obligations on organisations to obtain consent in many circumstances when conducting direct marketing activities. The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) published new guidance on direct marketing earlier this year.

New legislation to address differences in online and offline copyright laws will also be introduced through the Digital Economy Bill, the government said. It recently announced its intentions to change the law to ensure that a 10 year jail term is a possible sanction that could be imposed on people who infringe copyright laws online (12-page / 729KB PDF), in line with the current penalty available for "physical infringement".

The Bill will also "enable registered design owners to give notice of their rights more cheaply and flexibly", the government said. Last year the government said it would change the law to allow businesses to mark their designs with web addresses as a means of flagging to others the registered design rights they hold in those products.

A new Intellectual Property (Unjustified Threats) Bill is also planned within the next year. The Bill will reform existing laws that relate to unjustified threats of legal action for alleged infringement of intellectual property rights.

Companies accused of infringing patent, trade mark or design rights can already launch legal proceedings against rights holders where they believe threats of legal action against them are groundless. However, different provisions exist depending on which IP right is at issue.

"The main benefits of the Bill would be: to make it easier for innovative businesses to settle IP disputes and avoid litigation; to protect businesses against the misuse of threats to intimidate or gain an unfair commercial advantage, where there has been no infringement," the government said.

Plans to "put the UK at the forefront of autonomous and driverless vehicles ownership and use" were also outlined in the Queen's Speech. A new Modern Transport Bill will "make the UK ready to pioneer driverless cars", it said.

The legislation will "put the UK at the forefront of safe technology in the autonomous vehicles industry, such as drones, and spaceplanes" and ensure "appropriate insurance is available to support the use of autonomous and driverless vehicles", the government said.

A recent report by Pinsent Masons highlighted challenges manufacturers face in developing connected and autonomous vehicles, including outdated road traffic laws, complexities in patent licensing and restrictive data privacy rules. Last month Volvo announced that it will test new semi-autonomous cars in the UK from next year.

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