British Internet legislation causes rising tension

Opposition is building as legislation that would disconnect file sharers moves through Parliament

A package of legislation designed to combat copyright infringement in Britain is stirring more controversy as it moves through Parliament.

The Digital Economy Bill came about in part after the entertainment industry in the U.K. charged it has been damaged by the illegal downloading of content on peer-to-peer file-sharing networks.

The U.K. government said last year that file sharing cost its music industry £180 million (US$270 million), citing figures from the British Recorded Music Industry.

The Digital Economy Bill received its third reading in the House of Lords on Monday, the last chance in which the members of the unelected upper house of Parliament can change parts of the bill before it moves to the House of Commons.

Although the bill will be further revised, it could require ISPs (Internet service providers) to track illegal file sharers and suspend the accounts of repeat offenders. Another controversial but yet undecided amendment could allow copyright holders to obtain injunctions that force ISPs to block certain Web sites that host content without permission.

Other countries in Europe are either working on or have put in place measures aimed at stopping copyright infringement. In September 2009, the French National Assembly approved a so-called "three strikes" law that criminalizes file sharing, with infringers facing a suspension of Internet access, a fine or prison.

There is plenty of opposition in the U.K. to suspending Internet access for infringers. The bill also places liability on entities running networks, such as schools or coffee shops with free Wi-Fi, which would face suspension of Internet service if users abused their networks, said Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, which opposes the bill.

"You're responsible for any infringement that happens on your premises," he said.

Only in recent weeks has the British public become broadly aware of the bill due to increased attention in the media, Killock said. And the pressure is on: The bill will soon move to the House of Commons, which could opt to cut short debate because of time constraints.

The U.K. government is working on a budget in the coming week. Then, Parliament will recess in April, with a general election expected to be held in early May. The time crunch means there will be much less public debate, Killock said. The Open Rights Group plans to hold a protest near Parliament on March 24.

"This is how bad legislation gets made," Killock said.

If the bill is not passed before the general election, it will die, as bills cannot be taken from one Parliament to the next, even if the same party holds onto power.

Other controversial parts of the bill include allowing the U.K. secretary of state to amend copyright legislation in order to stop copyright infringement in respect to changing technology, although the changes would still be subject to a public consultation and approved by both houses of Parliament.

Google, Yahoo, Facebook and eBay told the government in December that the power could be used to force companies to introduce technical measures or increase monitoring of users even if nothing illegal has occurred.

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