The UK Digital Economy Bill - the Government’s vehicle for delivering a number of the initiatives set out in the June 2009 Digital Britain White Paper - is now before Parliament.

The Bill was introduced into the House of Lords on 19 November 2009, where it is currently being debated at the Committee stage. It will then go to the House of Commons, and is expected to be passed before the General Election.

Despite its long gestation and the wide range of issues covered in the Digital Britain consultations, the Bill is surprisingly short in length. Nonetheless, it provides for a number of new measures affecting the media sector, including:

  • Online piracy:
    • imposing “initial obligations” on ISPs in relation to online piracy (e.g. to notify subscribers where suspected infringing activity is reported by rights holders, and to provide infringement lists to rights holders), to be supported by a code of practice that will be approved or imposed by Ofcom; and granting special backstop powers to the Secretary of State to impose obligations on ISPs to limit internet access by technical measures (e.g. bandwidth capping) if the initial obligations are not effective in reducing piracy.
    • providing the Secretary of State with the power to amend the Copyright Designs and Patents Act in response to technological developments, to prevent or reduce online piracy.
  • Internet domain names: granting reserve powers to the Secretary of State to intervene in UK internet domain name registration.
  • Broadcasting:
    • expanding the functions of Channel Four to provide public service content on a range of media platforms, in addition to television.
    • providing Ofcom with more flexibility concerning the licensing of Channel 3 (ITV) and Channel 5 television services, allowing Ofcom to appoint alternative providers of regional and local news and to make consequent variations to the public service provisions in the Channel 3 and Channel 5 licences.
    • amending the radio licensing regime to provide the statutory basis that will allow for digital switchover in radio.

The most controversial elements of the Bill are proving to be the ISP obligations concerning online piracy (e.g. the extent of those obligations, safeguards and the appeal process) and how the costs of implementing these will be shared between the rights owners and the ISPs. The current position going forward for consultation on costs sharing is a 75:25 sharing between the rights owners and ISPs respectively.

Equally controversial is the proposed ‘Clause 17’ that gives the Secretary of State power to amend copyright legislation in relation to threats from new technology, without having to submit the amending legislation to full Parliamentary scrutiny. In the face of extensive objections to Clause 17 by industry and in debate, the Government has proposed tightening it to require that any such amendments be put before both Houses and the opportunity given for rejection of the proposal.

View progress of the Bill and the draft Bill documents.