Digital Economy Bill to be watered down

A government Bill that would give Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, sweeping new powers to amend copyright laws will be watered down tomorrow after complaints from internet giants including Google and Yahoo.

Ministers will put forward a series of amendments to the Digital Economy Bill, which contains flagship plans to fight internet piracy, after Facebook, Google, Yahoo! and eBay wrote to Lord Mandelson warning of their “grave concerns” over the Bill’s clause 17.

Although the Bill’s main focus is on fighting peer-to-peer filesharing, ministers say that other areas of online copyright infringement are developing, and they want to future-proof the Bill by giving the secretary of state new powers to amend the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

“We believe the Bill’s clause 17 opens the way for arbitrary measures,” the companies complained. “This power could be used, for example, to … increase monitoring of user data even where no illegal practice has taken place.”

Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have attacked the proposals, and the Government will tomorrow offer a compromise. It is understood that ministers will back an amendment tabled by Lord Bragg and Lord Puttnam that would make any proposed change to copyright laws subject to more rigorous parliamentary scrutiny, including a 60-day consultation period.

Ministers would also have to subject copyright proposals to an evidential test, to show that Britain’s film and music industries would be harmed without the changes. They will also have to consult with consumer groups before changing copyright laws.

The Bill still faces a tight parliamentary timeframe to become law before an election. The new government position shows that ministers are set on keeping clause 17, despite suspicions that it was a sacrificial lamb, to be discarded in last-minute negotiations.

The music industry had proposed a compromise position, in which instead of the controversial clause, the courts would be given powers to block illicit websites that hosted copyright material. But ministers rejected the proposal after it was leaked to journalists.

A spokesman for the Department for Business said: “The Government remains squarely behind the aims of clause 17; we would not have written it into the Bill if we did not think it was needed.”

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