Britain’s Digital Economy Act

On April 9th, the British Parliament announced its approval of the highly debated Digital Economy Act. It was first mentioned in the Queen’s Speech to the British legislature in November 2009, and royal consent followed three weeks ago, on April 8th 2010. The law goes into effect in June.

The purpose of the DEA is “to ensure a communication infrastructure that [fits] the digital age.” Along with several provisions that include the regulation of television and radio stations, the DEA seeks to enforce stricter measures and penalties on online copyright infringers. It proposes a method similar to a graduated response: notifications on potential infringers are forwarded by the ISPs to the Office of Communications or Ofcom, accountable to Parliament; Ofcom can then take ‘technical measures’ to disconnect the offending ISP accounts temporarily.

The British music industry is a key global player, and an acknowledged leader, in the field of commercial music. Thus, the passage of the DEA Bill is significant. It sets an example of a strong anti-piracy effort to the international community. Feargal Starkey, the head of UK Music, an umbrella organization representing the collective interests of the UK’s commercial music industry, welcomed the DEA, and insisted that this legislation will “spur action” and expose more legitimate ways for people to purchase music. John Kennedy, Chairman of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) , thought that, for Britain, the DEA was the final step towards “a world-class creative industry. ” This is because ISPs are finally co-operating with the labels and the UK government is providing a supportive legal framework to deal with music piracy.

However, the DEA also faces growing opposition and even public outrage. One of the British ISPs, TalkTalk, says they “will refuse to [disconnect the users’ account] due to alleged copyright infringement.” TalkTalk claims that the passage of the legislation was in haste, and that the provisions included in the bill needed further debate and testing.

The Internet also came alive, and more than 20,000 tweets and letters were sent to the UK government. The concern was that the music industry would restrict much freedom in the Internet by having its say on which accounts to suspend. Some anticipate that users who were not involved in online piracy could be falsely victimized.

Upon the passage of the DEA, several issues will need to be dealt with. One of them is the use of free Wi-Fi services in coffee shops, restaurants, public libraries, universities and colleges. The government does not exempt any of the institutions that provide open Wi-Fi. Enforcing a possible suspension not only affects the infringers but the Wi-Fi business as well. As there will be ambiguity deciding whether users or service providers are accountable for the alleged abuses, many small businesses will be discouraged from using open access–which hurts sellers all around at a time of recession, and not just the WiFi providers.

The general population still considers the passage of the bill as a seemingly despotic effort of the music industry to recover from its long-standing crisis. However, lawmaking and law policing are two different things. As the bill comes into effect, we might witness yet an encouraging spike in sales or more investments in the music sector. Yet, there is no guarantee that this will happen. In the meantime, the industry appears to be failing at persuading and educating the public that the new legislation is worth the cost.

However, a graduated response system in Sweden and South Korea is a positive precedent for the British authorities (see TheMBJ article by Beam Hong, ‘National Power and Music Sellers: The Case of Sweden and South Korea’, Feb. 2010). Britain has now become another example of a nation where labels have succeeded in acquiring the support of the ISPs (all except for TalkTalk).

The question for us is what would be the next logical step for the United States to take, especially considering the rapidly changing legal environment in the world, where ISPS are co-operating with the labels and their national governments. Here, the industry has still not been able to make much of a dent on the ISPs or the government—at least as far as an absolutely novel piece of legislation is concerned (for more information, see The MBJ article by Michael Benson, ‘ISPs and Music in the US’, Feb. 2010). But the pressure to conform to international standards is growing. Worldwide, nations are in the process of drafting the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which also deals with online piracy and copyrights. The United States is one of the participating countries (along with EU, Japan, Australia, Canada, and many others), but sovereignty concerns over national law will initially take precedence over any new international legislation, possibly delaying results. Nevertheless, if the United States aspires to remain a world-class music industry, with all the legal protections afforded to it elsewhere, now is the time to strongly consider the revision and the reinterpretation of our copyright legislation.
By Ben Hong


[1]Queen’s Speech – Digital Economy Bill; speech-digital-economy-bill-21348. Nov.18.2009
[2]Music Industry Welcomes Digital Economy Act; Apr.9.2010
[3]Doctorow, C, “UK ISP TalkTalk Will Not Obey Digital Economy Bill Disconnection Orders”; Apr.8.2010
[4″]The British Backlash in Numbers: 1 Vote, 24,545 Tweets; 20,000 Letters…”;
[5]”Wi-Fi ‘Outlawed’ by Digital Economy Bill”; Feb.26, 2010,…/open-wi-fi-outlawed-by-digital-economy-bill-40057470 .



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