Second Reading

Part of Digital Economy Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 4:50 pm on 2 December 2009.

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Photo of Lord Lucas Lord Lucas Conservative 4:50, 2 December 2009

My Lords, I am sure that I am not the only noble Lord in this House to be extremely disappointed to miss out on the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. If he has written it out, perhaps he will e-mail it to us so that we catch it anyway.

I, too, support if not the whole speech of the noble Lord, Lord Birt, then certainly the end of it, when he talked about the policing of the net. It is the wild west out there. It can be a very uncomfortable place in which to be an ordinary citizen, and if the streets were like the internet we would want to know what was being done about it. It is high time that the Government caught up with the needs of their citizens and started to do something about this. Relying on poor, under-resourced police officers-in individual forces, for goodness' sake-to deal with something that is a global phenomenon is, frankly, ridiculous, and it is time that the Government gave us some help with this.

I will speak on three subjects: domain name registrars, the spectrum and copyright. I am not entirely convinced by what the Government are setting out to do with domain name registrars, and I want to understand their reasoning better. I understand the problems that are described in the impact statement in particular, but do they really have plans for dealing with these things if they actually own the domain name registrars? Have they really thought through what powers would be necessary to enable them to tackle these things fairly and effectively? If they have, why do they not try giving those powers to the domain name registrars before they get around to thinking that those registrars should be nationalised? I will explore that in some detail.

Secondly, there is a well established need for additional spectrum for the emergency services. The current systems have, on several occasions in the past year or two, been overloaded to the point of breakdown. They are running on old technology that is way behind anything used by noble Lords, let alone by their children, and we are coming up to 2012, when we will need to have a very effective and highly capable system to deal with security at that event. Surely at some time in the future we will want our emergency services to have a really modern and effective system that is equivalent to the iPhone in noble Lords' pockets or even, perhaps in five years' time, to something that is much better than that. That will require spectrum, and I will table an amendment to require Ofcom not to allocate but to set aside spectrum for the emergency services.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, will doubtless remind me that the system is currently in place for more spectrum; the emergency services have to put forward a business case and can be allocated spectrum. However, the emergency services have just heard today that they are to reduce their budgets by 5 per cent a year for the next five years. In any case, it will take a lot of time to put together some of the things that they are required to think about and to sort out exactly what equipment will be required.

In Council recommendation 10141/09, which I think was signed by the noble Lord, Lord West, the European Union has agreed to a chunk of the spectrum being allocated for the future expansion of the emergency services so that they can be co-ordinated across Europe. The last time we produced a system for the emergency services, which was Tetra, we managed to create the international standard by doing so and we have benefited enormously from it. A large proportion of the industry which provides the equipment for that service is located in the UK and has been extremely successful in exporting it worldwide. If we find ourselves without the spectrum available within the band which has been allocated by the EU, when the demand really starts to build for the new generation of emergency services kit, we will find ourselves not only locked out of the market and all the benefits that would come with it, but also having to design for ourselves unique and expensive kit to cater for the fact that the bit of spectrum left over for the emergency services is somewhere off in another part of the spectrum and does not accord with EU and probable international standards.

This is a substantial decision because we are probably looking at 15 megahertz of spectrum, which is quite a chunk. None the less, I hope very much that I can persuade my Front Bench colleagues that they should support me in my amendment when it comes forward. I would also be delighted if we managed to persuade the Government that they should take an interest in this because it is pretty vital for national security reasons that we have a good allocation of spectrum for the emergency services.

Lastly, I want to speak about copyright. I should declare my interest as my main activity outside this House is in producing copyrighted material and selling it in book form and very substantially on the internet, so the basic protections that copyright law offers are extremely important to me. However, I think that the Bill has to be careful to ensure that it looks after the proper interests of citizens. We have always allowed citizens leeway under copyright law. You can lend books to friends and, as has been said, you can even copy your music and put it on to different kit. It is well known that newspapers are read by many more people than buy them, and certainly I am happy to borrow them when they are left behind on buses. I think it is entirely reasonable that people have got used to a reasonable level of sharing of copyrighted material between friends and within small communities, so that it does not have to be purchased again for every instance that it is used. The figures produced to show the losses incurred by the creative industries through illegal downloads do not represent those losses, but reflect infringement of copyright. It is not at all certain how many songs or films would actually have been purchased if people had had to pay for them. Many of the people who are downloading in this way are not in a position to pay for more than they do already, so one must be careful about the terminology one uses.

We have to be careful too about the industry cloaking itself in the finery of the small, creative individual. We are not talking about the small, creative individual here, but about powerful, monopolistic industries and giving them power over citizens. We must be careful of that. A principal example is that of the pornography industry, which I have seen mentioned in one briefing but has not been spoken of in any of the speeches today. Pornography is widely used on the internet and is one of the most assiduous industries when it comes to pursuing people for supposed non-payment for illegal downloads et cetera. We have to face it that we will be putting a lot of people into the hands of pornographers and their lawyers if we are not careful about the way we draft the Bill.

The recording industry is another major beneficiary of what is being done here. That industry is not exactly known for its kindness to creative people. Many people have created pieces of music and sold them to rapacious recording companies for a couple of hundred quid, only to see those companies go on to make vast sums out of them. The relationship is not equal and, as I have said, we are not dealing here with the benefit to the creative individual, but with the benefit to a powerful and monopolistic industry. We are also being asked to protect football, and presumably the interests of Mr Murdoch when it comes to putting the Times behind a "pay for" wall on the internet. In that context I am delighted to support what the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, said about the BBC. I am 100 per cent behind his resistance to Mr Murdoch's demands in that regard.

We also need to bear in mind that the problems now facing the industry are, to quite a large extent, of their own creation. The industry has been extremely slow to listen to the demands of its customers, and has had something of an abusive relationship with them, seeking to punish them before thinking of how to serve them better. It has taken a decade for the industry to produce sensible alternatives to illegal file-sharing, and the fact that a generation of people have become used to an illegality comes down to the industry's sluggishness. It is still slow. The football people have complained that there are sites where people can download streaming video of premier division matches. All that the companies offer is an annual contract for several hundred pounds. They do not offer per match deals at a reasonable price. If companies treat their customers in that way, they really should not be surprised that their customers try to get round the system.

The noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, put it quite well when he talked about moving the industry forward and producing better business models. We ought not to be producing legislation that fossilises the creative industry in this unsatisfactory relationship with its customers. We ought to be ensuring that we are producing something that creates a real incentive to move it forward. Little things get complained of, such as the immense sluggishness in rights clearances. I have come across that to some extent. These things have to be dealt with by the industry. Underlying the Bill there should be a real quid pro quo.

I want to see an ISP/customer-friendly system to back us out of our addiction to illegal downloads. The first letter that comes from an ISP to the customers ought to be helpful, friendly and explanatory. It ought to give people the information that they need without making them feel like criminals in the way that the BBC does when it sends out a letter to someone it thinks has not paid the licence fee. It is very important to get the text of that letter right and I hope that we will set in place a system in which the text of the letter is under the control of Ofcom or the Government, and not individual copyright holders or ISPs.

Secondly, it should be compulsory for copyright holders to go through the mechanism we are putting in place. It is not acceptable that we are putting in place a mechanism for them to deal with per-to-peer file-sharing and for them still to go immediately to lawyers and harass people as the pornography industry does already. The briefing that noble Lords will have seen from Which? describes the consequences well. We should take the opportunity of this Bill to stamp that out.

Thirdly, the appeals system must be good and clearly set out. We should be offering our citizens due process, not something that is summary. Losing one's internet connection in the digital age is a severe disadvantage. Losing it because you happen to be sharing it with other members of your family or, under current British Telecom arrangements, you are letting your neighbours use it, is something that we have to be careful of. I am not at all clear that we have the technology to go beyond the IP address, which comes into my router, to identify which user of perhaps one or two dozen who have access, has done the illegal downloading. We need to be very clear that we do not tip people into losing their internet connection or worse on a technically fallible basis. If I have one last request for my Front Bench, it is please can we vote against Clause 17?