My MP, Meg Hillier, was kind enough to respond by post to my email about the proposed “three strikes” legislation in the UK. The main content of her response was to forward me a letter she received from Stephen Timms, the Minister for Digital Britain (his actual job title, I’m not making this up), to “clarify the Government’s position on this issue”.

The forwarded letter mostly just rattled off the party line - illegal file sharing is illegal, artists need to be compensated, the usual unjustified claims of urgency - but it did mention the recent report by the UK Intellectual Property Office, awkwardly entitled © The Way Ahead, which is actually pretty encouraging reading: I will discuss it in a separate post soon.

My previous email focused on problems with the “three strikes” approach. Since the Digital Economy Bill was published we’ve discovered that “three strikes” is only one of several nasty tricks up Mandy’s sleeve. Therefore, and because I felt from her letter that Ms Hillier hadn’t really taken my concerns on board, I wrote back.

Update 2009/12/02 - since the Digital Economy Bill is currently being debated in the House of Lords, I also sent an edited version of this email yesterday to Lord Clement-Jones, who is taking part in this afternoon’s Second Reading debate.

Dear Ms Hillier,

Thank you very much for your swift response to my email of 17th November. Thank you also for forwarding a copy of Stephen Timms’ letter outlining the Government’s position, reasoning and intentions regarding illegal filesharing. I am grateful to him for drawing my attention to the UK Intellectual Property Office’s report © The Way Ahead, which I have read with interest.

Unfortunately, Mr Timms’ letter does not reassure me. On the contrary, it reinforces my perception that the policies set out in the Government’s Digital Economy Bill were drafted in haste, based on the shrill lobbying of special interests rather than empirical evidence and objective reasoning.

I do not believe the available evidence justifies imposing technical sanctions on internet users without trial in court, as the Government proposals would allow. The UKIPO report, published only a month ago, finds that "a lack of strong evidence across the world makes it difficult to establish the case for changes to aspects of copyright law and practice". Meta-analyses of the economic literature have similarly observed a poor quality of available evidence and a lack of consensus.

Mr Timms’ letter does not even include the word “evidence”; I note with concern that this omission seems to be typical of Government communications on this topic.

This is not the only thing wrong with the Digital Economy Bill. I wrote my previous email before the Bill was published. Since then I have read with alarm section 17, which grants the Secretary of State power to amend by statutory instrument the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988 “if it appears to the Secretary of State appropriate to do so”. To grant such broad powers to an unelected official is incredible, undemocratic and indefensible.

I acknowledge the problem this “power to amend” is designed to tackle: technology changes too quickly for primary legislation to keep up. However, the case has not been made that this justifies circumventing the democratic process, especially in such an important and controversial area as copyright law. To me it rather suggests, to paraphrase the UKIPO report, that Parliament should amend copyright law to be more technologically neutral.

Therefore I once again urge you to reject the Digital Economy Bill unless it is substantially amended, including the removal of section 17, and the addition of a guarantee of trial in court before technical limitations can be imposed on internet users. I would also appreciate it if you could pass on my concerns to the Minister responsible for the Bill, for example by forwarding him this email.

I am sure that, as a Government minister, you will be under considerable party pressure to support this Bill, and that I am unlikely to convince you. However, I must reiterate that I will not vote for any MP or party who does support it, nor will many of my personal and professional acquaintances.

Finally, I would like to inform you that I am publishing my emails to you on my blog, where my previous email has been read by over 70 people at time of writing. With your permission, I would like to include your responses in these blog posts.

Thank you again for reading this email.

Yours sincerely,

Sam Stokes

Update 2009/12/14: response

Meg Hillier sent a brief reply to this email, stating that she supports the Digital Economy Bill because “filesharing has a big impact on people’s livelihoods”. This is a disappointing response, as it basically ignores the content of this second email. I will continue the correspondence, but as this blog is already more politics-heavy than I intended, I will stop publishing my emails unless there is a noteworthy development.