Digital Economy Bill: Parliamentary demagoguery at its most pathetic

It’s Wednesday, and I’ve watched four hours of Parliamentary debates already this week, and I’m worried.

In addition to the chest-beating bluster of Monday’s statement on Brexit, where demands for Parliamentary scrutiny into the greatest constitutional matter of our time were sneeringly dismissed as “micromanagement”, we had the spectacle of yesterday’s second sitting of the Digital Economy Bill.

I watched the committee hearing at the point where they took evidence from Jim Killock of Open Rights Group and Renate Sampson of Big Brother Watch. (Disclaimer: I know Jim.) Both digital rights organisations have raised clear, legally valid concerns about specific provisions of the bill (ORG’s submission here, and BBW’s submission here) which deserve thorough consideration. The directors came to House expecting to clarify MPs’ questions on the points raised.

What they got instead was a patronising outburst of demagoguery which would insult the intelligence of the children some of the MPs fawningly claimed they were trying to protect.

It is worth noting that the committee hearing schedule implied the two directors would have an hour to defend their submissions. However, the previous speakers were permitted to drag on, so the digital rights contributions started fifteen minutes late.  The committee then stopped their contributions at 16:50. They were given barely 35 minutes.

You can read the full transcript of the digital rights organisations’ evidence here.

What you will see there is:

  • Thangam Debonnaire MP, a professional musician keen on the copyright provisions of the Bill, asking “Will you tell us a bit more about what your objection is to creating a framework to keep children as safe online as they are offline?”
  • Claire Perry MP dismissing the false blocking of legitimate web sites by overzealous filters as “shroud waving”;
  • Following that up by attacking Open Rights Group itself by asking “at what point does your organisation stop dealing with this world where it is ‘Hands off our internet’?”, and finally,
  • Accusing ORG of double standards by asking them if they have objections to the regulation of online gambling;
  • Nigel Adams MP talking over concerns about the bill enabling copyright trolling;
  • Nigel Huddleston MP playing the cancer violin by saying that the government data sharing enabled in the Bill would allow doctors to create a DNA database of cancer patients and then asking “are we ever going to reach a point where you are satisfied with the use of data?”
  • Matt Hancock topping that by actually asking Renate Sampson “Would you be happy to share your blood type data to help cure cancer?”
  • and then dismissing the group’s concerns about the overlap between the Bill, RIPA, and GDPR by saying “I do not think it is possible to legislate on the basis of other legislation that has not yet passed”.

Matt Hancock is the Minister of State for Digital Policy.

The Minister of State for Digital Policy does not understand that GDPR has been passed.

I have rarely seen Parliament behave in as authoritarian, demagogic, and frankly ignorant a manner as it has this week. Fundamental questions of what we do, how we work, and where we work are being openly sneered at by people whose job is to ask questions rather than shoot them down.

And you know what? It’s only Wednesday. I’ve not even read yesterday’s House of Lords debate on the Investigatory Powers Bill yet.

About the author

Heather Burns is a digital law specialist in Glasgow, Scotland. She researches, writes, publishes, consults, and speaks extensively on internet laws and policies which affect the crafts of web design and development. She has been designing and developing web sites since 1997 and has been a professional web site designer since 2007. She holds a postgraduate certification in internet law and policy from the University of Strathclyde. Learn about hiring Heather to write, speak, or consult.