Just over a week ago I wrote a fairly dry legal analysis of the Digital Economy Bill. I spotted an extremely serious provision — clause 11 — in the version being discussed in the House of Lords. Having looked at the amendments (which you can find on the Bill's document page) I am worried that no-one in Parliament appears to be taking the problem seriously.
What is the problem with clause 11 that I am getting so alarmed about it? It amends the Communications Act 2003 to insert a new section 124H which would, if passed, give sweeping powers to the Secretary of State. It begins:
(1) The Secretary of State may at any time by order impose a technical obligation on internet service providers if the Secretary of State considers it appropriate in view of—
Pausing there. Note that this says nothing at all about copyright infringement. For example the power could be used to:
- order ISP's to block any web page found on the Internet Watch Foundation's list
- block specific undesireable sites (such as wikileaks)
- block specific kinds of traffic or protocols, such as any form of peer-to-peer
- throttle the bandwidth for particular kinds of serivce or to or from particular websites.
I do not exagerrate. The definition of a "technical obligation" and "technical measure" are inserted by clause 10:
A "technical obligation", in relation to an internet service provider, is an obligation for the provider to take a technical measure against particular subscribers to its service.
A "technical measure" is a measure that— (a) limits the speed or other capacity of the service provided to a subscriber; (b) prevents a subscriber from using the service to gain access to particular material, or limits such use; (c) suspends the service provided to a subscriber; or (d) limits the service provided to a subscriber in another way.As you can see blocking wikileaks is simply a matter of applying a technical measure against all subscribers of any ISP.
Surely something must limit this power you ask? It seems not. The Secretary of State may make an order if "he considers it appropriate" in view of:
(a) an assessment carried out or steps taken by OFCOM under section 124G; or (b) any other consideration.Where "any other consideration" could be anything. To their credit the Tories do seem to have realised that this particular alternative is overly permissive. Lord Howard of Rising and Lord de Mauley have proposed (in the first tranche of amendments proposed that the "or" be replaced by an "and".
What astonishes me is that there is no obligation for the Secretary of STate to even publish such an order, let alone subject it to the scrutiny of Parliament, yet he could fundamentally change the way the internet operates using it. Other orders made under other parts of the Bill will have to be made by statutory instrument and most will require Parliamentary approval. Not this one.
The only other amendment that has so far been tabled that might restrict the powers of the Secretary of State under clause 11 appears in a third tranche proposed by the liberal democrat Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer which deletes the paragraph (b) from the definition of a technical measure (i.e. "limits the service provided to a subscriber in another way") which does put some bounds, although not very tight bounds on what an imaginative Secretary of State might do.
The government is not at all imaginative. In their explanatory notes they envisage:
The government envisages that the criteria for taking a technical measure against a particular subscriber would be the same as the criteria used to determine whether the subscriber' s alleged infringements are included in a copyright infringement list under the initial obligations. So a technical measure would be applied if a subscriber had been linked to a number of CIRs sufficient to place them on a serious infringers list.Note very well: they expect to use the power against the guilty and the innocent (of copyright infringement) equally.
The problem, I think, is that people are skim-reading the Bill and thinking that this part has to do with copyright infringement. Clause 11 is nestled between provisions about notifications of copyright infringement (the "strikes" idea) and the technical obligations code. People seem to be assuming that the Clause 11 power will only get used in that context but