The Digital Economy Bill (the ‘Bill’) was published on 5 July 2016 and aims to implement a large number of different government commitments on the digital economy made in the Conservative Party Manifesto. The Bill is lengthy (currently running to 145 pages) and covers the following different elements, some of which will be of interest to data protection practitioners:

Part 1: Access to Digital Services: This section will implement a new Broadband Universal Service Obligation (USO) for the UK, giving all citizens the legal right to request a 10Mbps broadband connection and enhancing Ofcom's powers to help consumers get access to better information. Consumers will also be able to switch providers more easily and the Bill ensures that consumers are automatically compensated if things go wrong with their broadband service.

Part 2: Digital Infrastructure: This section introduces a new Electronic Communications Code to cut the cost, and simplify the building, of mobile and broadband infrastructure, new planning rules for building broadband infrastructure, and new measures to manage radio spectrum.

Part 3: Online Pornography: This section will make it compulsory for all pornography websites to require age verification to prevent access to under 18s. It also introduces the concept of an 'age verification regulator' with new enforcement powers, including the ability to impose financial penalties on website operators failing to adhere to the new rules.

Part 4: Intellectual Property: This section ensures that the penalties for online copyright infringement will equate to the penalties for physical copyright infringement. This means an increase in the current maximum prison sentence from two years to ten years. There is also the introduction of a new online design registration system, known as 'webmarking' to protect the registered design rights that businesses hold.

Part 5: Digital Government: This section of the Bill aims to improve data sharing among government departments and, in particular, how data is used to tailor public services.

The main changes being introduced are aimed at:

  • allowing public authorities to share personal data with other public authorities in specific contexts in order to improve the welfare of individuals (for example, to deliver winter fuel discounts);
  • improving access to civil registration data like births, deaths and marriages, so that public authorities do not send letters to people who are deceased and to make processes easier for users;
  • helping to detect and prevent the losses that the Government currently experiences due to fraudulent activity each year;
  • providing new mechanisms to detect and collect public sector debt;
  • helping individuals to manage their debt by providing a means of support; and
  • making it easier to use data for research purposes so that official statistics are more timely and accurate.

Each clause includes proposed safeguards to protect the data, including through the DPA, and will ensure that data is shared appropriately and proportionately in the public sector.

Part 6: Ofcom and other Regulation: This section provides new powers to Ofcom, including the power for Ofcom to require communications providers to collect, generate or retain information for the purpose of publication, either by the communications provider or by Ofcom. It also broadens the ability of Ofcom to regulate the activities of the BBC.

This section also makes amendments to the DPA which places the ICO under a duty to publish, and keep under review, a direct marketing code of practice which will contain practical guidance promoting good practice in direct marketing activities. In preparing the code, the ICO must consult with trade associations and data subjects. The main benefit of the code would be that the ICO is better able to enforce sanctions against nuisance callers and spammers, and ensure that appropriate consent is obtained from consumers.

The Bill will have its first debate at the Second Reading stage and is expected to complete its passage through the House of Commons and move to the House of Lords in Autumn 2016. Royal Assent is expected in Spring 2017.

The text of the Bill and explanatory notes are available here.