The Queen opened the UK parliamentary session yesterday and announced that an Internet disconnection bill would be coming soon. But will it actually be legal?
Yesterday at 11:30am, the Queen made her way to Parliament in a coach, entered the robing room to receive her crown, and headed to the Lords Hall as the "Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod" went off to the Commons (where the sovereign is not allowed to enter). The Gentlemen Usher banged thrice upon the Commons door with his black rod, was allowed to enter, and headed to the Table of the House to "announce the Queen's summons." The Commons all trooped over the the Lords to see the Queen, seated on her throne, who then opened a new session of Parliament with her customary speech laying out the government's agenda.
Though it sounds like something straight out of the 1570s, this is pomp and circumstance, 21st century style. The ritual opening of the Parliament was tweeted on the official "ukparliament" account, transcripts went up immediately on the Web, an official Flickr photo set captured the magic—and the Queen's speech made clear that legislative action against Internet file-swappers would be coming, and soon.
"When they had come with their Speaker, Her Majesty was pleased to speak as follows," begins the transcript, and the Queen lays out the legislative program of "her government" in the coming term. In this case, Labour wants a tough three strikes law. "My Government will introduce a Bill to ensure the communications infrastructure is fit for the digital age, supports future economic growth, delivers competitive communications and enhances public service broadcasting," said Her Majesty, an innocuous description of the about-to-be-introduced Digital Economy bill.
The Pirate Finder General
That bill will likely attempt to reduce Internet copyright infringement, as measured by UK telecoms regulator Ofcom, by 70 percent from its current levels over the next two years. It's also widely expected that the bill will give the Secretary of State certain abilities to expand the enforcement regime and to introduce new sanctions, regardless of what happens on the piracy front. Still, we'd be a bit surprised if the bill opened the door to some kind of "Pirate Finder General" who can turn the recording industry into a legal, doorbusting militia, but Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing insists the current language in the bill (which should be available by the end of the week) is in fact this broad.
As we noted back in August, current Secretary of State Peter Mandelson's department has already made these sorts of suggestions. Under his plan at the time, regulators would have to measure the effect that warnings and speed throttling have on piracy, but "this advice would not be binding on the Secretary of State and he would be able to take into account other, wider factors and other sources of information before taking any decision on the introduction of technical measures."
Why not tie disconnection to the piracy rate? Because the government recognizes that measuring "piracy" is so difficult that it lacks confidence in the results. The result is that the Secretary of State can basically implement disconnection or other schemes whenever he is lobbied hard enough and wants to do so.
Certainly, the current Secretary of State, Peter Mandelson, is a close friend to Big Content. Several years ago, when he was EU Trade Commissioner, Mandelson pushed to begin the process that has brought us the secretive negotiations around the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).
In August, he was found to have (in the words of the Guardian newspaper) dined with "Hollywood mogul David Geffen at a Corfu holiday villa owned by the Rothschild banking dynasty. Shortly after that meeting, Mandelson suddenly supported Internet disconnection (the UK's official position before then had been that disconnection was off the table). Mandelson publicly insisted that there was no link and that he was not overly beholden to copyright owners. Currently, several major UK ISPs are forwarding warning notices from the music and movie industries, but they aren't implementing sanction for repeat offenders. Regardless of what ISPs are doing, the rate of use is already dropping in the UK, and has been for some time. The major UK labels also saw record sales due to digital singles in both 2008 and in 2009, and are currently generating record income from non-consumer channels like licensing to TV shows, films, and streaming Internet companies like Spotify. Such non-consumer revenue, in fact, now accounts for 18 percent of labels' total revenues.
Still, Labor wants its "Pirate Finder General" (or "Gentleman Usher of the Block Rod," as we dub him) and the Queen's speech yesterday signaled that a bill would arrive soon. How was the speech received? Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean suggested a "humble Address" to the Queen saying, "Most Gracious Sovereign—We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled, beg leave to thank Your Majesty for the most gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament."
As the Queen removed her robe and crown, said farewell to the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, and stepped back into her coach for the ride over to Buckingham Palace, we can only wonder about her own view of disconnecting her subjects' Internet accounts. The reality is that she probably doesn't have a view at all, but the Open Rights Group has one: the plan being proposed will probably be illegal.
"We believe these laws will be illegal under European law," wrote ORG's Jim Killock after the speech. "The new Amendment 138 [in the European Parliament's major telecom reform bill] appears to guarantee a prior legal process and hearing before disconnection occurs—where our government is proposing an appeal mechanism, for those who choose to take it up.
"Appeals mechanisms may be appropriate when it is clear that evidence is robust, and the punishment is clear: but with this proposal neither is true. Evidence cannot show who may have infringed copyright, only what connection was used. And the punishment could have an enormous range of effects, from being disruptive to removing someone’s ability to earn a living. For both these reasons, disconnection should only ever be imposed as the result of a court hearing."
Source: ars technica