The Digital Economy Bill was passed in a late night wash-up session in advance of the general election and is now law. Much of the focus has been on the provisions aimed at limiting copyright infringement, which were the subject of much lobbying by media rights owners. Some of the more contentious clauses were withdrawn in order to pass the bill. Few noticed that the other proposals for Broadband Britain have been quietly dropped for now, unambitious as they were.
The most controversial clauses remain but with provisos that will allow further interpretation in implementation. These could impose technical measures, including internet account suspension, on those that persistently infringe copyright, or in some cases allow sites hosting unauthorised copyright material to be blocked.
In practice there will be further review and consultation before such measures are introduced, if at all. It seems more likely that alleged offenders, or rather those that pay the broadband bill, will simply receive a warning letter in the first instance.
A contentious clause to allow “orphan works” to be used if it is not possible to trace the copyright owner was withdrawn.
The legislation includes a number of other significant provisions. It allows for a single franchise area for the main commercial television network in England, effectively removing the requirement for regional programming, although plans for independently funded news consortia were withdrawn. It also allows the government to set dates for switching off national analogue radio networks but does not commit to this.
The main recommendations of the Digital Britain white paper, which seemed remarkably unambitious and uninspiring in any case, were not even considered.
The relatively modest aim for a universal service commitment to deliver 2Mbps broadband nationally disappeared. So too did the proposal to impose a 50 pence a month levy on telephone landlines to subsidise next generation networks, although this was arguably little more than a gesture anyway as the investment required is much more substantial.
For all the talk about the digital economy and the creative industries, there has been a characteristic lack of clear vision about the broader potential for a digitally connected society. Rather than promoting investment in new infrastructure, the government has been swayed by vested interests.
The lobbying has been largely led by so-called broadband stakeholders, who are keen to exploit their existing infrastructure rather than invest in new networks, and traditional media rights holders that want to extend their copyright protection in the face of what they see as uncontrolled piracy.
What has been missing is any real ambition to create a new digital economy. Contrast this with the intervention of the Australian government with bold plans for a national broadband network.
In Britain, all the parties recognise that the economy is a key election issue, but there is little evidence that they see the digital economy as central to this. Rather than concentrating on the putative problems of pervasive piracy, the government might do better to focus on the broader social benefits for the electorate they represent in pursuing a comprehensive digital policy.