What is the Digital Economy Act 2017?

The Digital Economy Act 2017 is an Act of Parliament addressing key issues relating to electronic communications services, otherwise known as – you guessed it – the digital economy. Key provisions seek tougher sentences for copyright offenders, age verification for pornographic websites, a minimum broadband speed of 10Mbits/sec, increased sharing of citizens’ data, in addition to a general overhaul of the UK telecoms industry regulation.

In a nutshell:

  • Act of Parliament (received Royal Assent on 27 April 2017)
  • Overhaul of telecoms infrastructure regulation
  • Minimum broadband speed 10Mbits/sec
  • Age verification for porn
  • Tougher sentences for copyright offenders
  • More sharing of citizens’ data

The bill follows on from the Labour Party’s unpopular Digital Economy Act, passed in the build-up to the 2010 General Election. As the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition swept into office, many of the provisions were overlooked, with more facing legal action resulting in delayed implementation, as others were simply overlooked. The Act’s successor, the Digital Economy Act 2017, became law on 27 April. Here we’ll examine some of its key components, as well as what it could mean for you as an individual (spoiler: you don’t want to be a pubescent boy right now…)

Digital Economy Act 2017: Digital Services and Infrastructure

A major component of the 2017 Digital Economy Act is the overhaul of telecoms regulation. An amendment to the Communications Act 2003 stipulates a Universal Service Obligation that requires a minimum broadband speed of 10Mbits/sec (moderated from the House of Lords’ proposed 30Mbps). ISP lobbyists have voiced their dissatisfaction, arguing that with BT and Virgin Media bankrolling the change, consumer prices might increase, in addition to creating “potential market distortions”.

In addition, the Act is angling for more transparency in the telecoms community, permitting the government to more freely publish information in the customer’s interest, including statistics concerning complaints and broadband speeds. The government purportedly believes that this change will “enable the development of more innovative apps and consumer tools”.

The rules are tightening in other respects too, with ISPs bound to adhere to Ofcom’s standard procedure when it comes to members of the public switching broadband provider. In a time when the necessity of internet is almost akin to the necessity of, say, energy, providers are having to adhere more stringently to customer service rules.

That being said, ISPs will also reap the benefits thanks to the predominant role they play in everyday life; the Digital Economy Act 2017 elevates the status of telecoms providers to almost that of utility providers, with the rights to show for it. For example, ISPs enjoy similar rights to acquire land as utility providers (landowners’ rights permitting).

The big clanger in terms of digital infrastructure change is that Ofcom now wields the power to fine any mobile operator failing to comply with their spectrum licence £2 million. In addition to this, carriers can be fined up to 10% of their “relevant amount of gross revenue”. This, it was stipulated, should not exceed £20,000 a day.

Digital Economy Act 2017: Online pornography

One key part of the Digital Economy Act that’s garnered much media attention is ramped-up access barriers to online pornography, namely the introduction of mandatory age-verification systems. Dubbed “Theresa May’s new porn law” – and derided as “ridiculous” and “dangerous” – the overhaul has attracted criticism from proponents of net neutrality, who are reluctant to surrender what, in practice, may be considered censorship powers to the ISPs and the government.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is purportedly working with companies such as Visa, Mastercard and PayPal to ensure that sites infringing on the rules would be cut loose by payment providers and advertisers, making it impossible for them to continue business.

Companies breaking the rules – for example, failing to verify users’ ages – could also be subject to a £250,000 fine or, alternatively, 5% of a person’s “qualifying turnover”.

Digital Economy Act 2017: Crackdown on copyright

In a nutshell, copyright laws have been made harsher. The section of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988 stipulating that copyright was not infringed upon where a broadcast was retransmitted by cable was repealed, after having been found incompatible with EU law in March 2017.

Section 32 of the Digital Economy Act cracks down on copyright more explicitly, substantially increasing maximum imprisonment terms for online pirates fivefold, from two to ten years. Additionally, section 33 of the Act makes it possible to give notice of registered design rights by marking products with a website address, where corresponding details would be published.

Both section 32 and section 33 are due to come into force on 1 October 2017.

Digital Economy Act 2017: Public data

Increased government access to public data – there’s a policy that was always going to ruffle a few feathers. The government peddled this move as a means “to improve public services through better use of data while safeguarding citizens’ privacy”. In other words, the government would have freer access to citizens’ data, with the power to share said data among departments, local authorities and even researchers.

If it sounds slightly haphazard, that’s because it is. The National Audit Office recently reported that the government’s handling of data was grossly insecure, with almost 9,000 breaches of personal information amidst Whitehall’s 17 largest departments in 2014-15 alone. One to be wary of, certainly.

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