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ISPs criticise amendment to Digital Economy Bill

Heads of BT, Orange, Virgin Media and TalkTalk attack "obvious shortcomings"

A letter in today's Financial Times, signed by the UK's four largest internet service providers (ISPs), has criticised last week's amendment to the Digital Economy Bill.

The bill, which has been welcomed by the music industry, includes measures to help combat internet piracy. The new amendment will enable courts to force ISPs to block illegal file-sharing websites.

It was added with support from Liberal Democrat and Conservative peers, but at once proved controversial.

The amendment replaces a clause which would have given the Secretary of State broad powers to amend copyright law and impose fees or conditions in response to infringements. A supporter of the new measure, Lord Clement-Jones, had called it "more proportionate, specific and appropriate".

However, in a strongly word attack, the 16 signatories of today's letter have warned that the amendment will "threaten freedom of speech and the open internet, without reducing copyright infringement as intended".

Further, the bill could have "an adverse impact on the reputation of the UK as a place to do online business".

The Digital Economy Bill, which was outlined in last year's Queen's Speech, is expected to be pushed through before parliament is dissolved ahead of a general election.

The letter argues that this could be dangerous: "To rush through such a controversial proposal at the tail end of parliament, without any kind of consultation with consumers or industry, is very poor lawmaking."

Signatories to the letter also include Google, Yahoo, eBay and Facebook, as well as academics and consumer groups.

However Geoff Taylor, chief executive of the UK music industry body the BPI, has called the new amendment "sensible".

Responding to today's letter, he commented that: "the suggestion that the clause would lead to widespread disruption to the internet or threaten freedom of speech is pure scaremongering."