How the Digital Economy Act will come between you and porn

And everything else you need to know about the new legislation.

Getty Images/Vetta

As we approach the snap general election on June 8th, the UK government has had to get through as much important business as possible before Parliament shut down earlier today in preparation for the vote. Last week, MPs and Lords working on the Digital Economy Bill opted to forego much of the usual "ping pong" process of debating amendments and wording amongst themselves in order to get the thing passed. That "good enough" approach meant the bill became law last Thursday after receiving immediate Royal Assent. The Digital Economy Act introduces a new requirement for porn sites to verify the age of visitors, rules regarding the capping of mobile phone bills and it should help stop ticket touts from bulk-buying online. But there's a lot more to it, so here's everything you need to know.

Mandatory age checks on porn sites

Close up of a computer keyboard with all of the keys spelling out SEX

One of the most headline-grabbing facets of the Digital Economy Act is a new obligation for websites hosting pornographic and similar adult content to verify the age of visitors. The government has been talking about doing this for some time now in an effort to stop under-18s from easily accessing inappropriate material. There are some relatively serious consequences for sites that don't play by the rules, too.

The "age-verification regulator" -- which hasn't been named yet, though the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is considered the top contender -- will have the power to fine websites up to £250,000, or up to 5 percent of their turnover. The arbiter will also be able to order ISPs to block websites that fail to comply, and tell other providers that, for example, process payments or facilitate advertising on these sites to withdraw their services, effectively starving the domains of revenue.

There's one slight issue with age gates in that we're still no clearer on how they are to be implemented. Proving age using credit card details, the electoral roll and pay-monthly mobile phone contracts have all been suggested, but the government has admitted that forcing you to expose your identity might be a step too far. And so, it'll likely be some time before this new law can be enforced as the government and newly appointed regulator decide on the best and least intrusive way for porn sites to verify age.

10 Mbps broadband for everyone

The Digital Economy Act introduces a new Universal Service Obligation (USO) that effectively makes at least a 10 Mbps broadband connection a legal right. It's intended to complement the ongoing Broadband Delivery UK initiative, a government-subsidised push to offer 97 percent of homes and businesses "superfast" connections of at least 24 Mbps by 2020.

The USO ensures the final 3 percent aren't neglected. By 2020, those in underserved areas -- often rural locations where infrastructure is aging or nonexistent -- will have the right to request at least a 10 Mbps connection by law. That part's important, because it doesn't mean providers will be obligated to connect every remote cottage by default, but deliver upon request.

As with several provisions in the act, how exactly the USO will be achieved hasn't been firmed up yet. Would people or communities in the hardest-to-reach areas have to help fund the rollout above a reasonable cost to the provider? How do you ensure the monthly bills will be affordable for all after that? Could satellite connections be viable for getting the last outliers online? There are a few years left to iron out the finer details, and Ofcom has analysed most of the important questions already in a lengthy report.

At a relatively late stage in the game, Lords suggested an amendment to the bill that raised the minimum speed to 30 Mbps. MPs thought this would place too much of technical burden on ISPs and would generally be impractical, so the revision was abandoned. Ofcom will be able to revisit the USO in the future, though, and set minimum speeds above what's mandated by the act.

Bill caps for mobile contracts a must

Man angry with his bills

A few mobile networks already offer some form of contract cap or another, stopping subscribers from incurring any extra charges on top of a specified monthly spend. Written into the Digital Economy Bill is a requirement that providers have to offer customers this facility when they enter into a new pay-monthly contract, and give them an easy way to amend or remove the cap for the duration of the agreement.

Carriers are also expected to give subscribers reasonable notice when they're approaching their monthly limit so they can adjust their usage or choose to go beyond their cap that month. If something goes wrong and customers continue to receive service after they've hit their cap, then the carrier is expected to pick up the rest of the bill. As you might expect, Ofcom will be on the hook for making sure mobile networks adhere to the rules, and we imagine some secondary regulation will be published in due course -- creating a standard for how caps should work, giving providers a deadline to introduce them, that sort of thing.

If this sounds a little familiar, it's not to be confused with the £100 "liability" cap brought in a few years ago. This was a voluntary agreement signed by the UK's major carriers that means customers are only expected to pay £100 if their phone is lost or stolen and subsequently used to run up a huge bill.

Tougher sentences for pirates

Following through on an old promise, the government has introduced stricter sentences for digital pirates. Via an amendment to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, the maximum jail term for piracy has been increased from two to ten years. This has been somewhat divisive since it was first proposed, as opponents believe the revised wording could be used to criminalise the average Joe who might not even be aware the stream they're watching is impacting the copyright holder.

Even those that knowingly torrent the latest episode of their favourite show -- the kind of pirate the "educational" notices sent by ISPs under the relatively new Voluntary Copyright Alert Programme are supposed to deter -- aren't at risk, apparently. The government insists the longer potential jail term is targeted at the root of the problem: The pirates that leak and distribute copyright-infringing material the general public subsequently consume.

During the passage of the bill, MPs suggested an amendment that would allow the state to fine search engines for failing to hide or demote links to pirate media in search results. This clause ended up not making the cut and so is not included in the act, but earlier this year Google and Microsoft agreed to a new voluntary code of practice with various creative bodies, committing to further tackle the problem.

Getting a front-row seat

Spectators at rock concert.

The government is well aware that getting tickets to popular music, sport and other events can be a bane for consumers, who regularly end up paying a premium through a resale site. Primary sellers typically impose restrictions on how many tickets one person can buy to give everyone a fair chance of getting one at face-value, but tout bots exist that can circumvent these caps. Scalpers employ these to hoover up tickets so they can sell them at marked-up prices on resale sites.

The Digital Economy Act sets the stage for later regulation to make the use of these computerised tools a criminal offence, punishable by fine. The government has already said that it also expects sellers and resellers to help the cause by building more abuse-resistant systems. In a similar vein, the act introduces new consumer rights regarding ticket information. Ticket outlets must now ensure they are providing buyers with booking or ticket references that allow them to see exactly what seat or area within the venue they are forking out for, as well as inform them of any conditions attached to a resale ticket.

Catching up with TVCatchup

Watch Yourself

Section 73 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 states that public service broadcasters (PSBs) like the BBC, ITV et al aren't allowed to charge retransmission fees. This was intended to promote the retransmission of analogue TV signals, pushing them into underserved areas, way before satellite, cable and streaming TV services became ubiquitous. The Digital Economy Act repeals section 73, meaning PSBs are now entitled to charge retransmission fees.

This poses a particular problem for services like TVCatchup and FilmOn, which have been exploiting this retransmission loophole. They stream PSB channels with minimal overheads, and profit from running pre-rolls promos and framing their players in banner ads and the like. PSBs are now able to strike retransmission deals with these services, and have a legal argument in court if they can't reach an agreement. ITV, on behalf of itself and other PSBs, has been fighting for streaming retransmission to be classified as copyright infringement for over five years now, but section 73 has shut down all its efforts to date.

This shouldn't directly affect the long-standing status quo between PSBs and pay-TV providers like Virgin Media and Sky. The government has said it will step in if PSBs start pushing these providers for retransmission fees, as they are compensated in other ways, with favourable spectrum licence arrangements and prominence in pay-TV EPGs -- that's why you always see the flagship terrestrial channels at the top of the guides. However, PSBs believe this needs to be revisited on the basis the EPG has become less relevant.

At one point, the Digital Economy Act included clauses that would redefine prominence (or rather, the term EPG), extending the concept to all parts of a pay-TV platform's UI. This would've meant that in the "My Q" menu on Sky Q boxes, which suggests things to watch, the provider would be obligated to pepper the recommendations with plenty of content from PSBs.

The act was passed with a significantly watered-down version of this, though. Instead of directly addressing the issue, it formally tasks Ofcom with investigating how prominence can be ensured as pay-TV providers move to greater serve on-demand viewing habits. Ofcom doesn't actually have to report on this until 2020, but Lords (who backed the stronger amendment) hope it will see this as a priority and regulate appropriately much sooner.

Sharing data between government departments

woman and man at home typing on laptop computer

A significant slice of the Digital Economy Act is dedicated to what's called "Digital Government," which is basically a broad set of laws that enable the sharing of your personal information between government departments. These new powers, as the government spins it, will allow for better public services to be delivered online, and generally grease the wheels of administration. It means the government can build a database of "civil registration information," for instance, which can include key details so you never have to dig out your paper birth certificate again.

Data can be shared for many reasons, including for research and statistical purposes, as well as detecting fraud against the state -- say, if someone is claiming disability benefits but intel held by another department or organisation shows they are cheating the system (our example, not the government's). This sweeping set of provisions has been heavily debated and is undeniably contentious, as it's been passed somewhat prematurely before Parliament shut down.

How data sharing will work in practice is still not fully clear. That's because while the Digital Economy Act introduces a legal framework, the Codes of Practice that detail exactly how the powers are to be used and what safeguards need to be in place are currently in draft, unapproved form. Will the public have any say in what data about them is stored and shared? Are the powers even compatible with the EU General Data Protection Regulation, which comes into force next May? These are just a few of many, many questions that still need answers, despite the new data-sharing regime effectively being lawful already.

We'll no doubt be hearing a lot more about this part of the Digital Economy Act. Not just because formal guidance is needed to ensure data sharing actually improves efficiency and public services, but to ensure data is adequately protected. As The Register notes, the National Audit Office reported last year that between 2014 and 2015, 9,000 personal data breaches occurred across the 17 largest government departments.


Media stock

We've covered all the major parts of the Digital Economy Bill above, but there a number of smaller things you may also find interesting. The act writes into law Ofcom's new role as external regulator of the BBC, and gives it the power to force the telecoms industry to make switching providers easier for consumers. This legitimises the new system Ofcom brought in a few years ago, whereby the broadband provider you want to move to takes care of everything, including cancelling your current contract. Ofcom is also working on a similar system for switching between mobile carriers, and recently announced it's developing an automatic compensation scheme for poor broadband service, both provided for in the act.

Ofcom has a new power to ensure all PSBs are broadcasting enough UK-made kid's programmes as a part of their licence; and the government itself can draw up regulations for on-demand providers to guarantee their content is accessible. This means obligations to add subtitles, sign language and audio descriptions to catchup TV. The router-level broadband filters the government forced major ISPs to introduce several years ago are enshrined in the act, and the Information Commissioner has also been tasked with penning new guidelines that will keep direct marketers (spam emailers and cold callers) in check.

There are countless more provisions in the act not particularly relevant to your average Brit. Ofcom now has the power to revoke radio licences if stations are deemed to be "inciting crime or disorder," for instance, and the courts can now order carriers to disconnect a drug dealer's phone if they are known to be using it to organise, er, transactions with clients.

[Inline image credits (in order): Alamy, Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images, TeoLazarev via Getty Images, Amblin Entertainment/TriStar Pictures, Getty Images/Flickr RF, Keystone via Getty Images, BernardaSv via Getty Images, PA Archive/PA Images]