There was a big fuss about the Digital Economy Bill when it was rushed through Parliament in a two-hour session last month. But now that it's been enacted, what will its implications for business be? asks David Impey.
It's becoming clearer which businesses could be affected, what the main risks are and how you can reduce them, so let's try to put this new law into perspective.
Crucially, the act - or #debill as it's still referred to in generally hostile online comment - gives the government power to protect copyright owners against online breaches of their copyright.
For example, if it can be shown that a website has been or is likely to be used "for or in connection with an activity that infringes copyright", then under the new act the government can get a court order telling the ISP (internet service provider) hosting the website to block access to it.
What's covered by copyright? Words, images, podcasts, videos, music, tables, databases, diagrams, photographs - the list goes on and on and on…
You don't even have to publish copyright material to your website to potentially fall foul of #debill. If you - or anyone using your computer or network - can be shown to have repeatedly infringed copyright (for example, by downloading copyright-protected music or videos), then your ISP may be required to suspend your Internet connection.
What risks does the Digital Economy Act present?
"That certainly sounds scary," you might say, "but it doesn't affect me." Well, you may know that you never breach copyright online, and you may think you know that no-one else on your website or Internet connection is doing so. So where's the risk? Well, here are three possibilities.
First, just how sure are you that no-one else is breaching copyright? If you share your web connection with another business or even with partners or colleagues, there's a risk. If you work from home and your kids also use your computer, there's a risk.
Second, if your business provides an Internet connection for your customers to use (such as a free wi-fi network), you're the one who could end up in trouble if the connection is used to infringe someone else's copyright, even if you knew nothing about it.
Third, if you allow user-generated content on your site, you need to consider the chances of copyright material belonging to someone else being posted on your site by someone else.
Safeguards for small businesses
Now, to be fair to the act it's not the case at all that every business that finds itself in a scenario like the three above would see their website or Internet connection blocked under the new law.
For one thing, it's not clear yet how widely the new law will be interpreted. And in any event there are safeguards in place. For example, before suspending a subscriber's Internet connection, their ISP would be required to notify the subscriber about the infringement that has taken place and tell them what they can do to stop it continuing.
So in practice, the Digital Economy Act, as it's now called, may not be a pressing issue for a large majority of UK businesses. But in sectors with a core online focus, it will have made the regulatory environment more uncertain than it was a month ago. And that's not just bad for businesses that are already operating - just as important is the potential disincentive effect it might have on innovative start-ups.