Internet users in the UK are set to face tougher penalties for illegal file-sharing, following the approval of the Digital Economy Bill this week.

The bill, which includes new measures to improve high-speed broadband and tackle internet piracy, was passed through the Commons by a vote of 189 to 47 on Wednesday, April 7.

It carries forward some of the proposals outlined in the government’s Digital Britain white paper designed to prepare Britain for the digital age and allow creative industries to flourish.

But the rushed manner in which the bill was waved through by MPs in the political wash-up process has been labeled as ‘undemocratic’ by internet freedom campaigners and a number of politicians.

Under the new rules, copyright holders will be be able to apply for a court order to gain access to the personal details of persistent illegal file-shares. This could allow ISPs to suspend their accounts and take further legal action.

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group said: ‘People’s rights are at stake. The bill doesn’t require any test of evidence before harsh punishments are imposed on people accused of copyright infringement, and opens the door to a ratcheting up of unwarranted powers without democratic scrutiny.’

The legislation, however, has been welcomed by some in the technology world. A number major UK creative trade unions have come together under the collective title the ‘Creative Coalition Campaign’ to issue a supportive statement:

‘Looking to the future, we now face the challenge of ensuring that the system outlined in the bill functions properly in order to allow industry to focus on developing new business models that can flourish without having to compete with illegal file-sharing, downloading and streaming.

‘Only with this protection will the UK’s creative industries be able to continue to invest in the TV programmes, films, books, sporting events and music which are loved by millions across the UK and throughout the world.’

By some estimates the digital economy generated around £125bn gross value added (GVA) in 2007, representing around 10 per cent of UK GDP. In the same year the digital economy employed over 2.1 million people, representing around six per cent  of total UK employment.

The government claims that beyond the immediate companies, UK economic activity in manufacturing and services are increasingly based on digital and broadband technologies, and hopes that the bill could unlock an even greater value in digital communications.