The U.K. Digital Economy Bill has passed its final stage in the House of Commons with key clauses tackling online piracy in place and will now head to the House of Lords for final approval.

However, further parliamentary scrutiny and industry consultation will be required before the government can introduce measures to allow the secretary of state to approve the blocking of any Web site that a court decides infringes copyright.

There are also measures to require Internet Service Providers to write letters to those subscribers identified by rights holders as illegally downloading copyrighted material. Telecoms regulator Ofcom will determine how effective this approach has been after a year, at which point technical measures and suspension of Internet accounts would be triggered as further options. There would be an appeals process.

The Bill was voted through late last night (April 7) by 189 votes to 47. However, the rushed process through the Commons on third reading in the "wash-up" period, before Parliament is dissolved before a general election campaign ahead of a May 6 poll, has caused concern among MPs and Internet campaigners.

The Conservative opposition and the Labour government agreed on which clauses to keep, to ensure the Bill was passed before the end of the parliament. As a result, there will be no broadband tax levy to pay for next generation broadband (that measure was included in the Finance Bill) and a clause on orphan works was removed. It had caused concern among photographers about how their work could be used.

Clause 18, which gave powers to block copyright-infringing Web sites, was removed as ministers had already said the opposition amendment would not be legal under European regulations. It added a new version of the amendment that would enable rights holders to go to court to get a copyright-infringing site shut down.

The new clause allows the secretary of state for business to order the blocking of "a location on the internet which the court is satisfied has been, is being or is likely to be used for or in connection with an activity that infringes copyright."

The legislation requires evidence that "the use of the internet for activities that infringe copyright is having a serious adverse effect on businesses or consumers."

A new clause was added to allow for a "super affirmative procedure," which Stephen Timms, minister for Digital Britain, told the House was "quite a novel arrangement." That will require consultation with those affected by the measures on blocking Web sites, and the government will have to consider the verdict of any parliamentary committee on the regulations.

Internet Service Providers and campaign groups such as the Open Rights Group have voiced opposition to Web site blocking measures and suspension of accounts.

'Physically Sick'

Former Labour government minister Tom Watson voted against the Bill and expressed concern about the liability faced by libraries, universities and institutions for file-sharing on their networks. Watson described the Bill as a "catastrophic disaster" and later posted on Twitter saying he felt "physically sick" after voting against the government for the first time.

John Hemming, a Liberal Democrat who identified himself as a member of music trade body the BPI, PRS for Music and the Musicians' Union, told MPS the Bill was a "complete mess" and it was "absurd" to rush it through in the wash-up period. He added that sites such as WikiLeaks faced being shut down by the courts.

"We certainly do not want the clause to be used to restrict freedom of speech," said Timms. "We want to ensure that the safeguards are properly considered and that ISPs do not have an incentive to block sites purely on the basis of an allegation, for fear of bearing costs - although we also need to ensure that ISPs are not allowed to flout a decision of the court."

Timms also gave an assurance that technical measures against Internet subscribers suspected of illegal downloading "will not be imposed until Ofcom has concluded its report." And he said that public institutions may need advice on how to avoid users accessing P2P networks.

The U.K. music industry will be hoping that a future government will follow through with the Bill's anti-piracy measures.

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