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Disconnection won't be "willy nilly"

20 Oct 2009 | 22.11 Europe/London
The culture secretary has revealed the Government is stepping back from its new tough stance on illegal file-swapping, following widespread outcry against the move. Ben Bradshaw now says that a court order will have to be obtained by those wanting punish those they suspect of being persistent offenders - and that nobody will just be cut off "willy nilly."

Once Lord Stephen Carter stepped down from the helm of Digital Britain, we moved into a new era under dark Lord Peter Mandelson. The business secretary - whose latest resurrection into Government as a Lord means that he is essentially the politically undead ("If I can comeback, so can we," he told the recent Labour conference) - had promised tough love against illicit file-sharing, only without the love. He said internet service providers would be forced to hand over information on customers downloading illegal content to the music and film companies; he said persistent offenders may even be disconnected.

We are now moving towards a Digital Britain bill - and it looks like the policies that end up in law could look somewhat different. Culture secretary Bradshaw has been speaking to the House of Commons  culture, media and sport committee, telling them:
I do not accept the argument that there should be anarchy on the internet, that everyone should be able to access what they like free of charge.

The suspensions to which you refer would be a very last resort for serious ... infringement. It wouldn't just happen ... on the basis of an accusation.

Innocent teenagers are going to be cut off willy nilly on the basis of an accusation. That is not our intention.

He says that those who are to be punished for breaking copyright law online will be now given the right to appeal the decision - and their details will only fall into the hands of the copyright enforcers in the first place if they manage to obtain a court order. It's hoped these concessions will be a compromise acceptable by all parties - particularly the music and film firms and the ISPs.

But there's a lot of people to try and keep happy: as much as seventy per cent of voters oppose cutting off file-sharers, according to a YouGov poll published this week. "Nearly a third would be much less likely to vote for a party that supports disconnection proposals," said Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, which commissioned the survey. As he points out, "an overwhelming majority think that access should only ever be withdrawn as the result of court action," adding that "Lord Mandelson ... is out of step with public opinion and should think again."

While it looks like the Government has reconsidered after all, it's unclear whether the fierce debate on how to deal with online piracy can be dampened so easily. The rights holders have accused the ISPs of being accomplices to copyright theft, while the internet service providers themselves claim they can't bear the cost of policing their Intartubes. While fence-straddlers Sky have told the Government not to rule out disconnecting pirates, there's discord even amongst musicians on whether that's a step too far. As always, we'll keep you posted on the reaction.

Further details at [PA]