On the week that a general election was announced in the UK, the existing government has left us with a rather bitter last act. A hugely complex bill detailing new “digital reforms” has been two years in the making, and on Thursday night was rushed through parliament in just two hours. Many in the on-line industry are suggesting this is a sad attempt at the law trying to catch up with technology, and failing.
The “Digital Economy Bill” has been one of the most controversial debates of this government, even former minister Tom Watson has voted against them for the first time, calling the proposals a “catastrophic disaster” for UK internet users. To make matters worse, there have been accusations of lazy MPs who simply couldn’t be bothered to vote against the bill in their final few working days.
The recommendations are extremely long-winded, wordy and full of contradictions, misunderstandings of the internet and flat-out inaccuracies. The sections that are riling internet users the most are the parts dealing with on-line file-sharing.
The suggestions in the bill are aimed to curb internet piracy, which is fair enough, but security experts fear that the proposed methods could lead to many innocent people being accused of breaking the law.
The Office of Communications (Ofcom) will be now be given the job of building up evidence towards those who they believe are flouting the law. Internet Service Providers will be forced to spy on any internet activity that could be deemed suspicious, keep a case file on you, then report this to the government for suitable punishment. The huge flaw in this plan, is that it will be IP address location based targeting, not individuals.
Simplified, your IP address could be compared to your telephone number. While you’re on-line, your IP address is your identifier to the world, a series of numbers which can (in-theory) trace back any of your on-line activity to you. This causes as many problems as it does solutions, your IP address is revealed to every site and service you use on-line, and is not difficult to spoof by any spotty teenager with a few free services.
Similarly to your telephone number, IP addresses change. If you move house, change service providers, visit a friends house and use their internet, log-on from work, and often just by-design – many people have “dynamic” IP addresses which means your number can change by the week or month. It’s also probable that you will inherit an IP address recently used by somebody else, I only hope they have systems inplace to keep track of dates and usage.
If you (or someone using an IP address associated with you) is suspected of downloading illegal material, the evidence will be sent to the copyright holders for further action. The ISP will keep a record of the number of suspected incidents your IP address has been connected with, and when you reach a certain level (which has still not been revealed), you will receive a stern warning letter. This is your first strike, the level above that will trigger another letter, until your third strike, disconnection and a ban from the internet.
The problem with these wheezy, old over-weight chaps in parliament (who are predominantly thinking about their long summer holidays), is they are clueless about the Internet, and even less about the technologies on which it operates. Sure they have “experts” to advise them, but this bill suggests they also either lack knowledge or have some ulterior motive.
The public seem just as confused by the sketchy details of this bill, Twitter has been littered with quotes such as this from user Wasbacule:
Does the DEB mean I have two chances where my IP address has been used to download (either someone on my network or someone else spoofing my IP) before I get thrown off the net, or that at any time a publisher can send the boys round with a bill for $50M whether I’ve been warned or not?
His concerns are very real, and it doesn’t even need to be as drastic as IP address spoofing. Clause 14 of the bill demands that internet users take “reasonable steps” to prevent their network from being used by hackers for illicit purposes. Broadband supplier TalkTalk has estimated that the British public will need to invest in over £300million worth of new kit to comply with the law.
Many technophobes are still operating older home wireless networks which use security methods such as WEP encryption, which can be cracked in a matter of seconds these days. Even worse are the masses of unsecured wifi networks operating around the country, likely by owners who are unaware they are putting themselves at massive risk.
Many older routers purchased in the last decade were sold with out any security settings in-place, leaving it up to the user to log-in to the device as an administrator and go through a series of procedures to enable the safety settings. How many people bought a device from Linksys or Netgear in PC world, plugged it in and seeing that it worked, just left it? I’d wager that we’re talking about a substantial number, if not majority.
Anybody still operating an un-secure home network, not only breaks the law, but also puts themselves at huge risk. It’s extremely simple for a neighbour or person in the street to land the network owner in hot water, leading to huge fines or possible imprisonment.
It has also been suggested that the real pirates will never be caught with this legislation anyway. Anybody serious about piracy is aware of using secure encryption, and downloading from more underground services such as Newsgroups. The only people this bill is going to catch are casual playground swappers, the teenage girl who downloads a copy of the new Leona Lewis song by typing it into Google and is hit with a fine in the millions. The most prevalent pirates will be laughing as they continue to spread their warez under the nose of the law.
These changes just scratch the surface of the 76 page bill. Many politicians are outraged at Parliament pushing this through in just two hours. Liberal Democrat Don Foster said it was a “disgrace” for a bill of such complexity to be given so little time for debate.
Opposition to the contents of the Digital Economy Bill has been rife on-line, many fearing the safety of internet users who are ignorant to its contents, and don’t realise the implications this could bring. Other groups are simply arguing that it takes away our freedoms, and that the Government should not be allowed to disconnect internet users under any circumstances.
Many on-line petitions have been set-up, the most popular being the “Don’t Disconnect Us” page on the Number 10 website, which has attracted over 30,000 signatures. I’d encourage anyone who values their privacy and a free internet to sign it.