Digital Economy Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:33 pm on 13th September 2016.

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Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon 1:33 pm, 13th September 2016

I think it would be unrealistic to expect Google to establish whether every single site was legal or illegal. What it can do is react when illegal sites are brought to its attention. It does de-list, but new sites then appear immediately. There have been a vast number of complaints from rights owners about particular sites, but they should tweak their algorithms so that those sites no longer appear at the top of the search listings. Measures of that kind have been under discussion for months and months, but the problem still exists.

I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that there may well be a case for including a legal provision encouraging providers to establish a voluntary code. As she may remember, the Digital Economy Act 2010 contained measures to deal with illegal downloads. That led the industry to reach an agreement with the internet service providers, which made it unnecessary ever to use the law. When it comes to incentives of that kind there may well be a case for legislation, because we cannot allow Google and other search providers to go on allowing people access to illegal sites.

Another matter relating to copyright, which has already been raised, is the repeal of section 73 of the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act 1988, which exempts the cable companies from having to pay copyright licence fees. The original justification for the exemption was that it would encourage the roll-out of cable, and it has largely been fulfilled. However, the law has been abused, particularly by something called TVCatchup which has used it to steal copyright material and make it available without paying any licence fee. The repeal is, I think, absolutely right, although it leaves a question about the relationship between the cable companies—particularly Virgin—and the public service broadcasters. I hope that that can be settled by discussion between them, but Ofcom may still need a back-up role in connection with the must-carry provisions.

The other big issue covered by the Bill is pornography—which, again, has already been mentioned—and age verification. The Bill does not specify how age can be verified, and I must say that I am not entirely sure how the providers will do that. It will not be sufficient to include the question “Are you 18?”, along with a box to be ticked. On the other hand, requiring the user to submit, for instance, a credit card number potentially raises big issues relating to privacy. We must bear it in mind that the content that is being accessed is perfectly legal. Of course it is right for children to be prevented from accessing it, because that can be harmful, but it is legal content for adults, which is why I think the Bill is right not to go as far as blocking access to websites that are providing legal content. However, there are still big questions to be asked, and I am sure that they will be explored in Committee.

I agree with Chi Onwurah that the Bill should have contained cyber-security measures, and perhaps I should take some responsibility for that. Cyber-security is one of the great challenges facing our country, and I know that Ministers take it very seriously. At present, telecoms companies are required to report a cyber-attack—which TalkTalk had to do not so long ago—but that requirement is restricted to telecoms companies. The truth is that every company is being subjected to cyber-attack, and I think that in the event of a significant breach resulting in the loss of data affecting large numbers of people, companies should make it public and tell their consumers. That is not currently within the law, and we may need to consider it again.

Generally, however, I think that the Bill contains a number of very important provisions which will hasten our progress towards the establishment of a fully digital economy.