Digital Economy Bill Turns U.K. into Copyright Enforcement Thug

Last Updated Apr 8, 2010 10:14 AM EDT

Last night, the U.K. House of Commons passed the controversial Digital Economy Bill to bring a virtual hammer down on "copyright infringers." But let's be clear, infringers means people who share files, and the British government has become the enforcer for the music and video industries.

Companies may have obtained the legislation they wanted, but it is a last, desperate attempt to put off the inevitable. As the Daily Telegraph put it:

The controversial bill seeks to curb online piracy, among several other major policies, all with the aim of stimulating the UK's digital economy. It has caused ripples across the technology world, most notably because of its proposals regarding the suspension of repeat filesharers' internet connections and also the measures (formerly contained within clause 18) that would allow politicians to block pirate websites without primary legislation.
Under the legislation, copyright holders can file copyright infringement reports with an ISP, which must then send a warning letter to the infringer. Eventually -- again, specifics are non-existent -- the ISP would shut off Internet access for repeat offenders. Copyright holders could try for court orders to get the identities of the infringers. Details of how any of this works are hazy because the bill leaves them out, for some committee, undoubtedly heavily influenced by industry, to decide at a later date.

The government could also block sites judged by a court as "likely to be used for or in connection with an activity that infringes copyright." If you find that wording to be uncomfortably slippery and vague, you're not alone. As TechCrunch points out, this could let the government block a site like Wikileaks, which lit a firestorm with the recent release of a video showing the U.S. military shooting and killing a crowd of people in Iraq in 2007.

There was little discussion on the long and complex bill -- only 20 Members of Parliament (MPs) took part in the debate over it. It passed 189-47, getting support from both major parties. Most MPs voted as their parties told them, even though 20,000 voters wrote their representatives over the last week to oppose it.

Many countries in Europe are considering equivalent legislation. Success in the U.K. doubtless delights the music and video companies because the think they are going to make more people pay for music and videos. In this case, happiness is nothing more than the giddiness of self-delusion. The horse of content control was long out of the barn when digital files appeared. Companies can no longer enforce distribution policies through physical media.

Chasing down infringers eventually creates public perception of a David and Goliath fight, in which the media companies look like the giants. Remember who won? It's impossible to have a thriving business without the good will of customers, and the big studios and labels have been generating bad will aplenty.

Image: user xymonau, site standard license.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.