Legislative Scrutiny: Digital Economy Bill - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by Action on Rights for Children

The Digital Economy Bill:

Proposals to restrict or suspend Internet access

ARCH is a children's rights organisation with a particular focus on the effects of developments in Information Technology on children's privacy, consent and data protection rights.

The Digital Economy Bill sets out amendments to the Communications Act 2003 to permit the imposition of sanctions, including restriction or suspension of broadband access, where it is believed that a network has been used to download material unlawfully.

We believe that the proposals are manifestly unfair and disproportionate, and that they fly in the face of Government policy on education and social exclusion. Their impact upon children does not appear to have been considered and we can only assume that no discussion has taken place with the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Fairness and proportionality

On a broadband network it is impossible to identify which particular member of a household has downloaded illegal content - or indeed, whether any member at all has done so. However, the proposals will affect every member of a family, regardless of guilt or innocence.

Not everyone is aware of the need to secure their network connection, particularly when they have little knowledge or experience of information technology. In particular, those receiving help under the Home Access programme, which we discuss below, are almost by definition likely to come into that category. Unsecured networks are always vulnerable to network 'piggy-backing', a problem that is likely to increase if bandwidth restriction and account suspension are introduced. If families face penalties because of the unlawful activities of a stranger, they are in effect being punished for being victims.

Parents and children can be confused by the range of sites offering downloads, and insufficient education is provided about how to distinguish between sites offering legal and illegal content when both are equally available. Moreover, it is fair to say that most people, especially children, have scant knowledge of copyright law and are not always aware of potential infringements. Will a child realise that it may be wrong simply to accept a file from a friend?

It is not good enough merely to say that providers should give families 'advice' on these matters (Clause 4(5)) when an infringement notice is served. It can be difficult to master new technology, and it is easy to forget how intimidated new users may already feel. This is all the more likely where parents have learning difficulties or are not used to engaging with written material. Such families are also more likely to be amongst those with low family incomes, and who are thus the least able to pay financial penalties. Being required to provide 'advice' in an infringement notice does not necessarily correspond to ensuring that the advice is comprehensible to the recipient.

The only redress that a family will have against suspension is to appeal against a decision taken by the Secretary of State. Again, this will have a disproportionate effect upon those who simply do not understand what is happening. Executive orders are a cost-cutting measure which put the individual to the expense and inconvenience of making an application, rather than being given the opportunity to respond to allegations. In our view, such a drastic step as suspension should only be taken following consideration of all the relevant factors by a court. This protection is particularly important for children, who have no locus in law to challenge a decision and are reliant upon their parents to do so. A court hearing would provide an opportunity for consideration of the impact of suspension upon the children of a family.

The potential effect on children's education

Given the content of this Bill, it is surprising that the Government has recently announced the launch of its 'Home Access' programme[56], designed to give laptops and Broadband access to more than a quarter of a million families who cannot afford to buy them. We welcome this scheme because we are aware that children without a home internet connection face considerable disadvantages.

The Home Access programme is designed to ensure that all children and their parents are able to use the internet on the basis that:

"There are still a significant number of learners who lack access to a computer and internet at home. It has been shown that home access can enhance learner achievement, increase motivation and improve parental engagement, which in turn raises their children's attainment. Recent evidence has also suggested that having home access to a computer could help learners achieve a two grade improvement in one subject at GCSE." [57]

As the Schools Minister, Jim Knight MP, said in March 2009:

"It is impossible to overstate the importance of IT to today's children...It is vitally important that we close the digital divide and do not allow it to swallow children from families who may not be able to afford a computer or the internet. We will support these families to ensure that the educational and social benefits of 21st century technology are available to them." [58]

Since 2003, when the Communications Act was passed, Internet access has come to play an increasingly vital role in education. It is no longer a luxury item, nor an optional extra in education provision. The Internet itself provides a rich source of learning materials, and many schools place curriculum content online to give pupils access out of school hours. Some organise student support groups online to enable pupils to discuss homework assignments.

Internet access also promotes the development of effective home-school partnerships by giving parents ready access to school information online, and providing a ready means of communication with their child's teachers. The DCSF points to research demonstrating that internet access boosts children's educational achievement by increasing their parents' involvement with their education and schools. Indeed, its recent Home Access programme announcement[59] says that:

'The Government is currently legislating to make reporting to parents online by 2012 a legal guarantee in the Children, Schools and Families Bill.'

It is extraordinary that the Government, which has repeatedly underlined its commitment to education, could consider sacrificing to the demands of industry children's access to an educational resource which it quite rightly identifies as vital. The restriction or suspension of broadband access would not merely be inconvenient for children; it would damage their education. As such, the proposals in our view engage Article2 Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights[60] and Articles 28 & 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child[61]. We are not aware that the Government has considered these implications.

The potential effects on young people

It is not only school pupils who would be disadvantaged by lack of Internet access. Government-commissioned research into the needs of young people who are not in education, employment or training identified "lack of home access to computer and Internet" as a significant barrier to service use, recommending that this problem is solved by "Provision of technology at home along with connectivity and help in using IT"[62]. The number of young people who are classified as 'NEET' has remained unacceptably high and has been further aggravated by the current recession. Any policy that may increase the obstacles that such young people face is simply unacceptable.

Social Exclusion

The role that availability of home access to IT plays in reducing social exclusion has been identified by a Ministerial task-force on home access to technology:

"Strong evidence exists for the potential educational, economic and wider benefits of home access to technology." [63]

Indeed, it was in direct response to that task-force's final report that the Home Access programme was originally established.

Those without Internet access also face other kinds of social exclusion. It is commonplace for children and young people to make arrangements for social activities via social networking sites and email. Depriving them of these facilities hinders the development of their friendships and social activities.

The effect on parents will have a significant impact upon their children. Those parents who arrange to work at home via the Internet in order to be available for their children outside school hours will be faced with the problem of finding child-care; those who run small businesses will be deprived of their source of income. Both of these eventualities will inevitably increase child poverty.

If the Government is serious about increasing digital inclusion, it needs to take rather more effective steps to ensure that families fully understand the potential pitfalls. Otherwise, schemes such as 'Home Access' may become something of a poisoned chalice. The government also needs to acknowledge that if it intends functions and services to be moved online, it has a corresponding responsibility to ensure that nothing prevents access to them.

The proposals set out in the Bill are disproportionate, draconian and manifestly unjust. They will penalise the innocent, damage children's educational opportunities, aggravate poverty and social exclusion and undermine government policy in other areas. In our view, they need far wider consideration in the context of overall government policy. File-sharing cannot be treated as a standalone issue when the proposed remedy for infractions has far-reaching implications for education and social exclusion policy. The Government's approach as set out in this Bill appears incoherent, and we fervently hope that Parliament does not allow it to pass in its present form.

January 2010

56   'Free laptops and broadband for 270,000 families across the country in ground-breaking scheme'; 11th January 2010. http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/pns/DisplayPN.cgi?pn_id=2010_0011  Back

57   Home Access programme website: http://schools.becta.org.uk/index.php?section=oe&catcode=ss_es_hom_02&rid=15871

5 'First families receive computers under Home Access Programme': http://news.becta.org.uk/display.cfm?resID=39686

6 'Free laptops and broadband…' etc. op.cit

7 Article 2 Protocol 1 http://www.opsi.gov.uk/ACTS/acts1998/ukpga_19980042_en_3#sch1-pt2
8 Article 28/29 UNCRC: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/crc.htm#art28 

59  58   Back


61  60   Back


62   'Digital Exclusion Profiling of Vulnerable Groups: Young People not in Education, Employment or Training.' Citizens Online and National Centre for Social Research for the Department for Communities and Local Government, October 2008 Back

63   'Extending Opportunity: Final Report of the Minister's Taskforce on Home Access to Technology', July 2008


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