Digital Economy Bill clause riles internet companies and Lords

As the Digital Economy Bill gets its second reading in the House of Lords today, large players in the digital world, as well as a number of Lords, raise questions over a clause allowing government to change copyright law through statutory instrument.

Houses of Parliament

A clause in the Digital Economy Bill to allow the government to change its copyright law without the legislative process has got a number of internet companies and Lords up in arms.

During the second reading of the Digital Economy bill today in the House of Lords, all sides of the house widely backed the bill but all seemed to agree that there was further scrutiny to be conducted at committee level.

Business Secretary Peter Mandelson presented the bill to the house this afternoon outlining plans to deal with illegal filesharers, new responsibilities for Ofcom and a revised remit for public television channels.

But the main bone of contention between Lord Mandelson and his critics seemed to be Clause 17, which allows the government to change its laws on copyright in the future purely through statutory instrument rather than full legislative procedure, enabling it to be sped through the system.

Lord Mandelson said in his speech: "To reflect ever changing market the bill allows for changes such a power shall not and will not be used lightly."

Some of the biggest names in the internet have reacted to this, with representatives from eBay, Facebook, Yahoo and Google writing a letter to Lord Mandelson warning the clause risks "stifling innovation and damaging the government's vision for a Digital Britain."

The letter said: "We believe the bill's Clause 17 which gives any future Secretary of State unprecedented and sweeping powers to amend the Copyright, Design and Patent Act opens the way for arbitrary measures."

It added: "This would discourage innovation, impose unnecessary costs, potentially unsettling the careful balance of responsibilities for enabling market change [and] could put at risk legitimate consumer use of current technology as well as future developments."

The letter concludes that the clause "creates uncertainty for consumers and businesses and puts at risk the UK's leading position in a digital Europe."

Although mostly supportive of the bill, the Liberal Democrat representative speaking in the House of Lords during the reading, Lord Razzall, also raised his concerns on this point.

"I will add to the point that section 17 that effectively gives the government power to alter copyright law by statutory instrument should be rejected," he said.

"I just think if we are going to alter copyright law it has to be done by primary legislation."

However, he did think an ammended bill would be passed before the next general election.

Others briefly mentioned the clause but, excluding support from Baroness Howe, the reactions were negative and all asked for it to be removed from the bill.

The bill will still have to go through more readings and committee stage debates before it becomes law so there is still the opportunity for this clause to be ammended.

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