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The clause that concerns us all

Business secretary Peter Mandelson’s proposed Digital Economy Bill has ruffled a few feathers in the new media world, but has also gained support from unions and industry bodies. The fate of the bill could have a significant impact on the future of internet use in Britain, and on the growth of new media.

It is difficult to work out just who would benefit if the bill was successfully passed, apart from the government, which stands to gain millions in taxes. It is being touted as an effort to keep pace with technological change, yet in the same breath, threatens to severely limit access and creativity.

The loudest protests concern the worryingly vague clause 17, which would offer unprecedented power to the government to amend the Copyright, Design and Patent Act. Consumer groups have warned the bill could jeopardise privacy laws and make way for unwarranted monitoring and data collection. Critics argue the flexibility of the clause could lead to unfounded claims of copyright breaches and over-reaching power.

The clause states: “The Secretary of State may by order amend Part 1 or this Part for the purpose of preventing or reducing any infringement of copyright by means of the internet if satisfied that (a) the infringement is having a serious adverse effect on businesses or consumers, and (b) making the amendment is a proportionate way to address that effect.”

Interestingly, media heavyweights, Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Ebay joined forces to protest against the clause:

“This clause is so wide that it could put at risk legitimate consumer use of current technology as well as future developments,” the joint letter to Mandelson read.

The government has since moved to allay concerns, hinting it may water it down. Ministers maintain the government is committed to the principle of clause 17, but have drafted amendments.

The National Union of Journalists has signed a letter in support of the clause, stating jobs and the future of ‘creative Britain’ are at stake without it.

The NUJ’s support of the clause, at best, suggests a misguided attempt to protect member’s interests, and at worst, a regressive and short-sighted move, which could hinder the growth of the industry. This is a clause that concerns us all.

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