Today for the first time ever I wrote to my MP to ask him to make sure that the UK's Digital Economy Bill is properly debated in Parliament and not just rushed though. This bill contains many controversial clauses, particularly one about disconnecting people from the Internet just because an allegation of piracy has been raised. I'm concerned that if this bill is passed there will be great damage to the future freedom and economic prosperity of people in the UK. I recently joined the Open Rights Group to support their campaign for digital rights too.
So here is the text of the message I sent. My local MP is Mark Lancaster who is a Conservative (currently the opposition party) and I am keeping my fingers crossed that he will do the right thing.
Dear Mr Lancaster,
I am becoming more and more concerned about the Digital Economy Bill which is currently making its way through Parliament. I did not want to just copy and paste one of the many template letters that are being made available to try to persuade MPs to ensure that this controversial bill is not rushed though parliament but instead write to you personally to ask if you would be prepared to add your voice to the calls for this bill to be fully and properly debated and its impact understood.
This is the first time I have ever written to an MP, but I feel that this issue is very important and deserves to be discussed fully rather than just rushed though Parliament without proper attention. I am very concerned at the huge potential for injustice in this bill and realise just how important the Internet is to the future of the economy. However you feel about the issues raised by the Bill and the provisions within it, I hope that you would agree that a proper and full debate is necessary. It is at this point that general members of the public like myself need our MPs to rigorously examine this legislation.
Thank you for taking the time to read this message and I look forward to hearing from you.
This is the reply I got back:
Thank you for contacting me about the Digital Economy Bill.
In November 2009, the Government set out a series of policies relating to Britain's digital sector. I support the ambition of this Bill, but am disappointed that it does not show more imagination. Very few of the proposals contained with Lord Carter's Digital Britain report have made it to the Bill.
The Government has neglected this crucial area of our economy, and my party recognise that legislation is urgently needed to safeguard this vital industry and prevent a slide from our position as a global leader in creative industries.
However, I am concerned that, in places, the Bill proposes old economy solutions to new economy problems. Furthermore, there is a lack of detail on how certain proposals would be implemented - with much still to be done through codes of practice and secondary legislation - and a limited timeframe for the Government to make this legislation law.
I can assure you that my colleagues in the Shadow Business, Innovation and Skills and the Shadow Culture, Media and Sport Teams are following this legislation very closely. They will continue to hold the Government to account on this issue and take every opportunity to ensure that the legislation benefits our economy as much as possible.
I support measures to tackle internet piracy. However, I share your concerns about the practical implications of the Government's proposals. They fail to properly answer some critical questions; for example, what criteria will the Secretary of State use before deciding to cut someone off? They also fail to suggest incentives for technical solutions that prevent or deter people from illegal file-sharing in the first place.
In the Digital Britain Report, the Government announced a universal broadband pledge that would speeds of 2mbps across the country by 2012. My party and I fully support the proposal and the plans to use surplus licence fee money from the Digital Switchover process to fund it.
We are, however, opposed to the unfair and old fashioned telephone tax with which the Government plans to fund next generation broadband. Instead, Conservatives would achieve this by opening up BT's ducts, reforming the business rates system and allowing access to telegraph poles where local authorities give their consent. All of these measures would reduce the cost of rolling out broadband to rural areas and encourage private sector investment
My party and I welcome the moves to put the classification of video games on a statutory basis. This is a necessary measure that will help protect children from accessing inappropriate material. We will work constructively with the Government to create a new robust system. I also believe though that it should have used this opportunity to close a loop hole that currently allows content of a violent and sexual nature in sports and music videos to be sold to children.
As part of the Bill, the Government has set out provisions for a switch from analogue radio to Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB). As the Shadow Secretary for Culture, Jeremy Hunt MP, has stated, Conservatives are 'wholeheartedly behind a digital switchover of the radio industry'. We are not however, convinced that the country will be ready by the Government's planned switchover date of 2015. Not enough has been done to explain the benefits of digital to consumers, millions of analogue radios will have to be thrown away, and hundreds of local radio stations will be put under threat. We will be pushing the Government for clarity of their plans to tackle each of these problems.
One such proposal is the designation of new duties to OFCOM. This Bill would oblige OFCOM to promote investment in infrastructure and content alongside its duties to promote competition, and also to carry out an assessment of the UK's communications infrastructure every two years. These measures are both unnecessary and could end up distorting the market.
Conservatives are opposed to topslicing the licence fee to fund regional news programmes on independent broadcasters as set out in the Digital Britain Report. If there is spare money from the licence fee, then the Government should consider giving the money back to licence fee payers. We support the industry's preference to find commercial solutions, and instead of using the licence fee we have proposed deregulating the regional media sector to allow new, self-financing models to emerge.
Once again, thank you for taking the time to contact me.
Mark Lancaster MP
(Dictated to & written by Graham Barnes)
Office of Mark Lancaster MP (Milton Keynes North East)
Shadow Minister for International Development
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA
I hope Mr Lancaster does not mind me reproducing his reply here. I wanted to publish it as it looks like a template letter but does set out his party's thinking on this important Bill.
Let's hope that MPs listen and make sure that this proposed legislation is properly debated. We need laws that will help people succeed and prosper, not ill thought out authoritarian dross. Piracy is a serious issue, but cutting people off from the Internet is a ridiculous and unworkable answer. It's time to say no to this legislation.