The Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition government has launched a website to help identify unpopular laws introduced by the previous government.
The new web site called You Freedom launched on Wednesday and was so popular that it initially struggled under the load. The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg had, prior to the general election, declared that a Liberal Democrat government would repeal the Digital Economy Act and on Thursday Clegg claimed that the site had already indicated public support for such a move.
The Act, which came into force in the last weeks of the outgoing government, contains a number of measures but the most controversial relates to copyright infringement and compelling Internet Service Providers to reveal claimed infringing customers as well as provisions for restricting or potentially even cutting off ‘offending’ customers’ broadband service.
Concerns with the new law relate to ramifications of public providers of Internet access such as Wi-Fi hotspots, through to the involvement of industry in the identification of alleged copyright infringing Internet users. Broad concern has also emerged around the way in which the bill was conceived, with many claiming it was misunderstood by technically-unsavvy politicians and that the process of debate was not rigorous enough.
One of the many comments on the site said:
"This bill was designed to benefit a sector of business not the populous, which will set a precedence that is potentially Orwellian. If a company believes you’ve infringed their copyright, let them prove it in a court of law – and them foot the bill, not me."
The Digital Economy Act, however, contains a number of other measures which have varying levels of support such as community radio licensing and the power of the government to delegate a responsible authority for the rating of videogames.
The bill had faced considerable opposition to some of the originally proposed measures such as changes to the copyright "orphan works" section which was widely challenged by photography and author groups for proposals to create a body to licence copyright material when the owner of the copyright could not be identified. The orphan works clause was subsequently dropped during committee debate.
The conservatives had previously said the Act was "rushed through" but had not committed to repealing the act as the Liberal Democrats had prior to the election. After the election it was made clear that the Act would not be repealed.
Some commentators have suggested that the web consultation on a popular issue such as copyright infringement amounts to little more than a strategy designed to draw public attention towards a repeal or revision of an Act which was always intended.
One of the most difficult challenges of the coalition government will be to sift through the masses of noise so far generated on the site, much of which is unlikely to be useful such as petitions to "Invade France" and "Stop pregnant women from urinating everywhere".
The site also has a potential to backfire on the coalition by revealing popular support for changes in the law which the dominant conservative party are firmly opposed such as the support for the legalisation of cannabis.
At any rate there appears to be growing public support and government willingness to address the copyright section of the Digital Economy Act. This is likely to cause concern for industry groups that represent industry such as the motion picture and music recording industries.