The Digital Economy Bill – what it means, and what you can do about it

The Digital Economy Bill has passed through the House of Commons and is likely to become UK law later this month.

It is one of the last acts the Labour Government rushed through before the forthcoming election.

The bill has become particularly well known for the way in which it attempts to deal with online copyright infringement. However, the three main areas of the bill that concern me are:

1. ISPs are forced to disclose information about suspected copyright infringers to copyright owners

Currently, if a copyright owner suspects you of illegally downloading material, they require a court summons to recover the information from the ISP. This will change – anyone will be able to declare themselves a copyright owner and request details based on an internet user’s IP address.

2. Temporary suspension of suspected multiple copyright infringers’ internet connections

ISPs will be forced to maintain a list of copyright infringements made by their customers.

Any user can be penalised under a three strikes rule and ISPs will be able to disconnect less profitable “heavy” users from their networks. If, like me, you are a heavy user of the BBC iPlayer and download mp3s from various websites, you could be targeted. Once disconnected or suspended you might find it difficult to get back online.

Most people agree that the internet is fast becoming as essential as water, gas and electricity. Imagine if your water company cut you off because you used the water the wrong way.

3. ISPs will be forced to block access to websites that offer copyright infringements

I am all for blocking child pornography. But where does censorship stop?

Websites like the Pirate Bay could be gone for ever. While it is a notorious copyright infringer, it provides royalty-free public domain images, fonts, sound packs and works with an expired copyright. These could no longer be available.

For the record – I don’t use the Pirate Bay or BitTorrent. Anyway, as soon as you block one site, another one will spring up. And who will decide which sites are to be blocked and which ones are not? Will some ISPs be more lenient than others?

What can I do?

Nearly all of your internet traffic is sent as clear text along your network (with the exception of Bank and ecommerce transactions). Your ISP can easily see what is being sent and then monitor for copyright violations or more sinister activities. There is no simple, free and easy fix to this problem, but there are solutions. One of these is to encrypt all the data going through your internet connection via a VPN.

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) will encrypt all the traffic and ultimately block your ISP from seeing what you are doing. Services are springing up all over the place and as a result of the new bill, and they will be more common. On the negative side, the authorities are not able to spy on anyone using a VPN connection, and may miss terrorist or paedophile activity.

Secure FTP

Another option is to use a secure FTP client / server to transfer files. FTP (File Transfer Protocol) is a common way to send files across the internet. By encrypting these transfers, your ISP won’t be able to monitor you.

Ultimately, the diehard file sharers will always find ways to infringe copyright. Sadly, this bill will affect everyday home users who may commit the occasional copyright infringement – whether intentionally or by accident. But where is the line to be drawn – what about watching copyrighted TV shows on YouTube? Will that be a violation?

There are a lot of questions about this bill and a proper discussion is needed. However the general election is coming up and – hopefully – whichever party wins will re-open this bill. Personally I feel a levy such as an internet tax would be the fairest way to reimburse copyright holders. If every home broadband connection was subject to a £5 monthly internet tax, this could be distributed to the copyright holders, thereby going a long way to solving the issue.