Watching the Digital Economy Bill reading

The Digital Economy Bill is receiving its second reading in the House of Commons today, the day of the formal announcement of the General Election.

There were only 40 MPs in the House when the debate started and it’s now down to about 18. That’s 2-5% of our elected representatives present. It is disappointing that with tens of thousands of messages being sent to MPs (some say 20,000, others 80,000) so few of them have turned up for the debate. The rest are presumably hitting the campaign trail – certainly my MP, Sandra Gidley, is. (It is telling how many of the MPs speaking in the debate are Scottish – I guess it is too far for them to go back home to start campaigning before having to attend Westminster for the last couple of days before the dissolution. The more southerly MPs are mostly absent.) I have written, e-mailed and tweeted Sandra about this issue, so it’s disappointing to see only one member of her LibDem party in the House – their spokesperson on the issue, Don Foster.
18 MPs debating the Digital Economy Bill

The Liberal Democrats have said they will object to the Bill going through the “wash-up” process, but I’m not alone in suspecting they will change this position as the evening goes on. Much of the debate about the more controversial elements of the bill seems to be about “creativity” versus “Internet freedom,” the two being seen as mutually exclusive. I am a podcaster and Internet freedom helps me be creative. I am a photographer and Internet freedom doesn’t stop me being creative.

Meanwhile, the #debill tag is trending worldwide on Twitter. That means more people are talking about the Bill on twitter than just about everything. In the entire world. Not even the tags for the General Election are trending globally. I would like to know the following:

  • The number of constituents represented by MPs present in the House for the debate.
  • The number of people representing themselves on twitter during the debate.

I suspect that the latter far outnumber the former, an example of the ability of the Internet to give everyone a voice. Free speech and open discussion online could be curtailed through sloppy legislation like this.

Even some MPs who support the Bill have said there has been insufficient time to debate the it and that it shouldn’t progress through the wash-up, showing that this is a matter of parliamentary process as well as human and digital rights. Labour and Conservative back-benchers have both complained about the lack of time to debate the Bill, but only the Labour MPs have actually said they would vote to stop the Bill from progressing at all, despite the fact that it’s a Bill from within their own party. It is equally disheartening to hear Conservative MPs saying that they disagree with various clauses in the Bill but will support it “under protest.” This surely undermines the purpose of elected representatives.

UPDATE: The Bill passed to the final stages tomorrow without a single objection.

UPDATE 2 (7th April, 14:35): The Daily Telegraph is reporting that over 5,000 people were tweeting about the Bill last night (and at the time of writing #debill is still trending worldwide). That’s obviously far fewer than the constituents represented by the few MPs who attended the debate last night. The crucial vote on whether the Bill can be passed through the wash-up process after just two hours of Committee discussion (usually 20+ hours) will be later tonight, probably around 10:30pm.

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