Critics hope snooping Bill will rest in peace

And with the government preparing itself to push the controversial legislation through the final stages of the parliamentary process, it can expect anything but an easy ride.

What is the RIP Bill?
The RIP Bill is paving the way for British law enforcement agencies to intercept e-mails and decode encrypted data sent over the internet. Essentially, the authorities will be able to demand the ‘keys’ to unlock data that has been coded for secure transmission over the web.

The government claims that this is simply an extension of existing powers already used by the security services and the police to tap telephone conversations and read mail. Arguably, since much of our communication now takes place in digital form, it is right to update the law to cover these areas.

But now the business community has joined calls from civil liberties groups and internet service providers – the companies that offer access to the internet – to fight a Bill which they feel will drive e-business abroad.

Costs to business
Earlier this week, a report prepared by the London School of Economics and ISP Claranet for the British Chambers of Commerce said the Bill would cost the UK £46bn in lost business within five years. This contradicts the Home Office’s figure of £20m a year, though the BCC report was compiled using government figures.

The BCC believes the main cost to business will arise from the provision by ISPs of interception capabilities. This could cost ISPs alone as much as £640m over five years.

The IT press has speculated that this will involve the installation of ‘black boxes’ allowing external monitoring of all the internet traffic controlled by the service provider. These could be linked to a new Government Assistance Technical Centre run by the National Criminal Intelligence Service.

In a letter to home secretary Jack Straw, director general of the BCC Chris Humphries warned of the damaging effect on e-business.

‘There is a real danger that the competitive disadvantage caused by the measure will frustrate the government’s ambition of making the UK the best place to trade electronically by 2002,’ said Humphries.

But Home Office minister Lord Bassam believes the legislation is necessary to protect the new economy.

‘We do not want to see the burgeoning e-commerce market overrun with hi-tech criminals against whom law enforcement finds itself powerless; neither does industry with which we have actively engaged in consultation,’ said Bassam.

Confidential information
While other countries such as the US and Ireland are considering e-security legislation, it is not expected to be as strict, which will strengthen the case for internet companies to move abroad.

Head of e-policy at the Institute of Directors, Professor James Norton, himself a former government advisor on the internet, has also pointed out these flaws in the Bill. He is worried the government is scoring an own goal for the UK e-commerce industry.

‘The UK stance on this Bill is worrying many companies – especially multinationals who contrast the proposed UK legislation against far more business friendly proposals in Ireland, France and Germany,’ said Norton.

The Home Office claims that it would only use the new powers on security grounds and that safeguards will be built in to prevent abuse. But at this point in time, a code of conduct has yet to be released by the Home Office.

Business leaders are concerned by what could amount to breaches in confidentiality when encryption keys are surrendered. They are worried about potential leaks of commercially sensitive information, such as takeover discussions.

Ministers responsible for the RIP Bill believe industry concerns are unfounded. Home Office minister Charles Clarke has tried to allay fears over business security.

‘Unless the industry has confidence in security we are setting up, the whole thing will not succeed,’ he said. ‘We believe the security issues can be resolved and that the solution is collaborative in nature.’

The government wants to a secure online environment free of cyber criminals, but the RIP Bill could sound the death knell for Patricia Hewitt’s plans to put the UK at the forefront of e-business.

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