April 27, 2010 By Indrajit Basu, International Correspondent
Photo: Gigabit Internet Cafe, one of the fastest Internet connections in Britain. (Lee Jordan)
Did you know that in UK gas and electricity is never cut off -- it is usually metered in case of non-payment? And it is illegal to cut off water.
Talk of Internet though, and it is entirely a different matter. Although considered a service more wide ranging than utilities, according to UK's Digital Economy Bill that became a law a couple of weeks ago, someone could be disconnected from the Internet almost at a drop of a hat.
Moreover, this new law which was hastily passed by the UK parliament on April 8, has given governmental powers to Ofcom -- the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries -- to block websites that are likely to be used for infringing copyright. The Bill implements aspects of Government policy on digital media set out in the 'Digital Britain' White Paper published in June 2009.
The Bill that according to the Government sets out to secure UK's position as one of the world's leading digital knowledge, which accounts for nearly £1 in every £10 that the whole economy produces each year, has the following objectives:
o To strengthen and modernize the country's communications infrastructure;
o To make the UK one of the world's main creative capitals by tackling online infringement of copyright.
o To ensure the provision of engaging public service content by:
o And most notably to ensure that everyone can operate with confidence and safety.
Undoubtedly this bill is perhaps the most serious attempt yet by any European country (or any country for that matter) to tackle online piracy.
Consider this: over the last twelve months or so at least three governments -- New Zealand, France, and Spain -- tried to tame online piracy but failed to come up with a workable solution. The constant tussle between copyrighted content owners and civil liberty campaigners, who consider or seem to consider that almost any Internet clampdown a violation of the right to information, has always come as a serious hurdle to such efforts.
The US too in fact has been trying for much longer without any significant success.
Yet the harshness with which the new UK Bill has come down on Internet freedom is disturbing.
According to Open Rights Group -- a digital rights campaigner in Britain -- the Bill contains measures to allow disconnection of individuals from the Internet, for undefined periods of time and has web blocking laws, all with no real scrutiny and limited debate.
"Regardless of what you do or don't do, you could be punished for the actions of others because of laws put in place by the Digital Economy Bill: if you have unsecured WiFi in your home, you could be punished; if you use the Internet at your local coffee shop or library, you could lose access to that connection," the group argues.
Indeed there are quite a number of anomalies. For instance, although the Bill says proof is required before disconnection, it does not mandate that the evidence must relate to the holder of the Internet connection. Thus a subscriber could be punished for the actions of a friend or even a neighbor who has used that Internet connection.
Similarly, copyright holders have the power to demand that sites they believe to contravene copyright law be blocked by ISPs, without providing adequate evidence.
ORG adds that even if justice is not out of reach: a subscriber could appeal, but would not have to pay for the privilege that wouldn't be eligible for any legal aid. Reasons for appeal are limited too, and unlike in a trial, the onus would not be on