The UK Digital Economy Bill: Threat to free speech and privacy

By EDRi · February 22, 2017

The Digital Economy Bill is being debated by the House of Lords in the United Kingdom. This is a far-reaching bill that covers a range of digital issues, including better broadband coverage across the UK. However, from the digital rights point of view, there are three main areas of concern.

Age verification:
The bill includes proposals to force porn sites to verify the age of their users with no requirements to protect their privacy. During the debate on 6 February 2017, the UK government said no privacy safeguards were necessary. In order to force foreign websites to comply with the proposals, the government has proposed that a regulator could instruct Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block websites that fail to provide age verification. This could mean that thousands of websites containing legal content could be censored. These proposals have implications for privacy and free speech rights in the UK and EDRi member Open Rights Group (ORG) is campaigning to amend the bill.

Data sharing:
There are worrying proposals to make it easier to share data not only across government departments, but also with private companies. ORG has been involved in government discussions about these measures but the concerns raised have not been addressed in the bill. The main concerns are that the bill lacks sufficient privacy safeguards, ministers have too much power without scrutiny, data on births, deaths, and marriages can be shared without any restrictions other than those found in pieces of other legislation, and the codes of practice are not legally binding.

There are proposals to increase the maximum prison sentences for online copyright infringement to ten years – to bring it in line with offline infringement. ORG is concerned that the definition of the infringement is too broad and will catch large numbers of internet users. ORG is trying to amend the bill to ensure that such severe sentences are given to only those guilty of serious commercial infringement.

ORG has made a submission explaining the huge threat to free speech and why these proposals should be dropped. They launched a spoof recruitment campaign for Internet Censors to help classify the web for age verification. Over 23 000 people have signed a petition for rejecting the proposals.

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ORG’s submission

Spoof recruitment campaign

Petition about the proposals

(Contribution by Pam Cowburn, EDRi member Open Rights Group, the United Kingdom)