Claims that Britain’s government is about to create the 21st century equivalent of a witch finder have surfaced after a leak of information suggesting that Secretary of State Peter Mandelson is seeking sweeping new powers to enforce copyright laws.
A letter leaked to Internet activist and author Cory Doctorow alleges Mandelson is planning to introduce changes to the Digital Economy Bill now under debate in Parliament. These changes will give the Secretary of State the power to make ‘secondary legislation’ (legislation that is passed without debate) to amend the provisions of Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (1988).
What that means, Doctorow writes, is that an unelected official would have the power to do anything without Parliamentary oversight or debate, provided it was done in the name of protecting copyright.
Doctorow says Mandelson details such powers as follows:
1. The Secretary of State would get the power to create new remedies for online infringements (for example, he could create jail terms for file-sharing, or create a ‘three-strikes’ plan that costs entire families their Internet access if any member stands accused of infringement)
2. The Secretary of State would get the power to create procedures to "confer rights" for the purposes of protecting rights holders from online infringement. (for example, record labels and movie studios can be given investigative and enforcement powers that allow them to compel ISPs, libraries, companies and schools to turn over personal information about Internet users, and to order those companies to disconnect users, remove websites, block URLs, etc)
3. The Secretary of State would get the power to "impose such duties, powers or functions on any person as may be specified in connection with facilitating online infringement" (for example, ISPs could be forced to spy on their users, or to have copyright lawyers examine every piece of user-generated content before it goes live; also, copyright "militias" can be formed with the power to police copyright on the Web).
“It's a declaration of war by the entertainment industry and their captured regulators against the principles of free speech, privacy, freedom of assembly, the presumption of innocence, and competition,” Doctorow writes.
“This proposal creates the office of Pirate-Finder General, with unlimited power to appoint militias who are above the law, who can pry into every corner of your life, who can disconnect you from your family, job, education and government, who can fine you or put you in jail.”
The new provisions, if proved correct, are directly aimed at people who download files (mostly music and video) from non-copyright Web sites.
‘Witch finder’ was a self-conveyed title used during the 17th century. Witch finders, acting with the tacit approval of Parliament, would seek out people (mostly women) accused of being witches, who would be subject to torture and often hanged. Accusation was considered sufficient proof.