The Digital Economy Bill
Warning: The following post may contain a large amount of anger, and a significant proportion is about what the bill means. Those who are scared by either long posts, anger or long posts which contain anger should probably stop reading now.
I missed this when it was broadcast, but this week Panorama (The BBC program that looks at a certain topic, and tries to work out the truth behind it) did a piece on the Digital Economy Bill. Usually I avoid Panorama because it leads me to foam at the mouth, but I was very interested to see what the final conclusion was. If you didn’t see it, it’s available on iPlayer until this Friday (26th of March for those seeing this in the future. Just make sure that car reaches 88mph).
This Digital Economy bill is one of those things that seems to have sent the world up in storm (Quite rightly in my mind. But this is the neutral factual bit I feel obliged to write). Trying to find a neutral summary of what the whole of the bill means has been almost as easy as catching a fish without any bait, so I’ll attempt one here. Any mistakes and misconceptions I’ll attempt to rectify if/when they get pointed out to me*. The Bill has 4 central points behind it: Digital Infrastructure, Creative Industries, Digital Security and Public Service Content, however, the Public Service Content mostly relates to the digital switchover, and won’t be discussed here. If you aren’t interested in the specifics behind these, and just want an angry response, then click here.
The Digital Infrastructure debate is one I remember showing up sometime last year. The bill states that we need to “strengthen the country’s communications infrastructure, equipping the UK to compete and lead in the digital global economy”. What this boils down to is the upgrading of the pipelines through which the magic pixies bring us the internet. A large amount of the internet pipeline is copper wiring. Copper, being a great person to collect your tickets on the bus (Conductor? You know, on the bu- I’ll shut up), was a great choice, but the problem with a system like this is that as distances increase, the amount of resistance increases, and the time taken for the current to reach you also increases.
If you live next to the switchboard, you’ll barely notice this. If, like my godparents, you live on a farm on the top of a hill, you’ll either have no connection, or a such a slow one that snails are laughing at you. This section of the bill requires OFCOM to encourage investment in the digital infrastructure of Britain more so than any other, as well as reporting once every 2 years to the government on how well this is going. There are more parts, but these won’t affect gaming and as such I won’t give specifics, except to say it affects Digital Radio and the licensing powers behind mobile broadband (Just that people can be fined, as opposed to getting their licence revoked or being prosecuted). Overall, this section isn’t something we really need to worry about, since it seems to be about getting more people a decent internet connection.
The Creative Industries part is the part that you’re more likely to have heard of. Keep in mind that I’m just going to state the facts about this, so don’t suddenly jump and attack my comments because of what I’m about to write. The government believes that the creative industry is central to the economic recovery (insert cynical comment here), and as such is looking at ways of defending it. As we’ve moved further into a digital age, we’ve moved further and further into a world where copyright infringement has changed and become easier. This section of the bill is about how to prevent and discourage this.
The part that is getting a large amount of press is that ISPs will be asked to throttle or disconnect pirates. However, the rules aren’t as bad as people seem to make out. People are under the impression that you will be throttled/disconnected straight away. This isn’t what the text of the bill I’m looking at states (The details may have changed since this summary was written). ISPs will be obliged to send a letter to any person infringing copyright (Which I believe Virgin are already doing), and record that they have sent this, namely the fact that you have been caught of infringement is recorded. This data is then held, and only on request is it shown to copyright holder. Copyright holders can’t just ask for your details. Let me repeat that: Copyright holders are not allowed to ask for your details outright. If they feel that this person has infringed and been warned enough, then they can ask for a court order (So in theory, just one infringement shouldn’t be accepted) for the ISP to release their details, meaning that they can be sued.
If it turns out that you still aren’t planning on stopping, then the Secretary of State will be given the power to order ISPs to throttle your connection. If you still don’t stop (And Panorama shows how useless it is to continue with a speed like that), you will be disconnected. A section which I know has since been dropped is the clause that allows the Secretary of State to change the copyright laws. The last section relating to this connection buisness is that there will be an appeals system, but how effective this will be will remain to be seen. Again, there are more things in this section which don’t relate to gaming and I won’t talk about in detail. These are: Updating copyright laws (Including increasing the fine for infringement to £50,000) and updating the public lending contracts (Libraries have a hell of a time lending e-books and similar, this should make it simpler).
The Digital Security section makes for very interesting reading, mostly because it takes account of the Byron Review, which I spoke about a very long time ago. The reason it’s interesting is that there are plans to finally make it unlawful to buy an age restricted game if you aren’t of the correct age (It turns out that the BBFC and PEGI restrictions weren’t actually legally enforcable). Something I didn’t know was that PEGI was chosen because it passed 9 tests of a competent rating system which Byron came up with. The other part relates to domain names management, which is vaguely related to gaming (Ish), but is unlikely to affect us, except to help prevent phishing and malware spreading.
So what does the Digital Economy Bill mean for us poor laymen and women? On the whole, the ideas behind it are sound. Everything in the Bill makes almost perfect sense. I never kept track of whether it went through, but there was talk sometime last year that there would be a £6 annual tax on your phonebill which would be used to upgrade the phone lines to fibre optic. As stated above, we mostly use copper wiring. Fibre optic sends lasers down a wire, which means latency issues are much less of an issue, since it’s moving at the speed of light and there’s negligable resistance. I personnally didn’t mind it as it was £6, which works out at 50p a month, a seemingly negligable amount to me. Of course, some people weren’t happy, but I never found out what happened to it.
I believe that the bill is a good idea overall. However, my main issues with it are that it places copyright holders as champions of the law. There’s a whole load of problems with how it tends to deal with problems like this. I can think of 2 different types of situations which the bill as it stands doesn’t seem to deal with. The first is open wireless connections. If I go to Starbucks and use their access to download the files, I’m very likely to cause them to get these letters, as the owner of the connection is the one responsible for everything that goes on inside it under the terms of this bill.
The second is that it won’t stop people downloading via the conventional methods. If I really wanted to save my identity from this, I could use a tool that encrypts all my wireless access, meaning that there won’t be any way for my ISP to know what I’ve done. I could use an annoymity client, which will bounce my requests everywhere across the globe and not keep a physical record. Why is this a problem? Well, if you force people to have to encrypt/bounce their data, it becomes much harder for you to spy on them if you were MI5 or a similar agency. There was strong opposition from MI5 and 6 because it would make their jobs much harder when this bill was announced, which I thought would lead a quick U-Turn. Sadly, it didn’t.
There’s a lot of thought that this will break human rights. An internet connection is apparently a human right, and thus cutting someone off from their internet will break the human rights. I’d love to see someone take them to court and see what the result was. I’m also of the opinion that an internet isn’t a human right. What I don’t like is that I could lose my connection for a technical infringement of copyright. Let’s take an example. Today, I bought a Dragonforce album (Hatemail to the usual place). As the CD won’t arrive until Tuesday at the earliest, I’ve downloaded that album. Now, under the Bill, could I face these reprecussions?
If you watch that episode of Panorama, you’ll notice there’s a family there who Jo Wiley stalks and asks about their internet habits. It turns out the parents are unaware of how much downloading their kids do, and they hide behind the typical excuse that they aren’t computer literate, but their kids are. This was the typical Panorama moment where I started to throw my monitor out of the window, before I realised it wasn’t mine, and actually belonged to college. Using excuses like that is bad parenting. You don’t say that the fact that your kids know where the drug dealers live and you don’t is why they are addicted to drugs. They also hide behind the fact that they don’t know what their kids do. Again, it is stupidly easy to say that, but you don’t just leave your children to run out on the street and shut the door behind them do you?
Most of the bill won’t actually affect us directly. There’s a lot of good that could come from it, but almost all of the negative press has been mostly in the Creative section. If the bill does go through, I have a few suggestions for everyone. First of all, if you use wireless, add a password to it, and change the router password from the default to something else. Secondly, if you have kids, don’t give them the password to your laptop. Give them another account without admin priviledges, and for god’s sake make your password difficult to guess. Finally, learn how to use your computer. Don’t let your kids know more about your computer than you do.
*To get most of my information, I’m looking at this document, which looks like an official summary of the bill the House of Lords are debating over. If you want to read the official text, then it is here. Return to reading