I’m hardly the first to observe that more and more of the things that we do are made easier by being online. From reading the news, to paying our taxes, to political campaigning, to keeping in touch with friends, we all benefit from the power of the internet.
Actually, I should probably qualify that ‘we’ a bit. I benefit, and since you’re reading this on a blog you probably do. But nearly one in three British adults don’t use the internet, and as more and more opportunities become available online, they are increasingly disadvantaged. Tackling so-called ‘digital exclusion’ is a real concern for government – though an increasingly they understand that it’s inseparable from broader issues of inequality.
Still, with all the efforts being made to adsress digital exclusion, it’s a little perverse that this week the government is attempting to rush through legislation which could throw tens of thousands of people off the web.
The Digital Economy bill will set up a ‘three strikes’ system where any person, family, or organisation accused of downloading copyrighted material three times will be disconnected from the internet. No trial, no judge, no jury: just a simple administrative procedure to take away something which 80% of the world’s population believe is a fundamental human right. The provisions have attracted criticisms from organisations as diverse as Liberty, The British Library, The Joint Parliamentary Select Committee on Human Rights and the British Computer Society, but are strongly backed by the music industry which is concerned by the effects of piracy on record sales.
The disconnection provisions are so controversial that a leaked memo from the British Phonographic Institute says they are unlikely to survive a full parliamentary debate. Unfortunately, the government is insisting that the bill is forced through before the Election, even though this will mean that MPs are not given time to debate the new powers. There’s still time, however, to write to your MP and ask them to fight for the time to subject this bill to the scrutiny that it deserves.
While the disconnection provisions are a real threat to human rights, there’s a bigger issue at stake here: the power of parliament to act as a check on the executive. MPs are, in theory, our representatives in the legislative process. It is their role to scrutinise government legislation and ensure that is both well designed and in the public interest. By steamrolling bills through parliament, we will inevitably end up with more and more legislation which is neither.
Our current system has given us a parliament which is willing to vote through controversial legislation, without demanding the chance to subject it to scrutiny. That’s yet another sign that we need to look again at the first past the post electoral system which almost always delivers an unchallengeable commons majority for the government of the day.
Fixing the Digital Economy bill is just the start. Making sure that more bad bills can’t be pushed through parliament in the future is a much bigger task.
You can take part in the Write to the your MP campaign organised by 38 Degrees and the Open Rights Group at http://www.38degrees.org.uk/page/speakout/extremeinternetl