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Big Brother Bill faces Select Committee storm

RIP opponents gather on all sides to halt legislation in its tracks

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Opponents of the Government's Regulatory Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill are preparing for the next round in the fight to have it stopped in its present format, when the draft legislation goes before a Select Committee tomorrow.

Last Monday, RIP passed its second reading in the Commons but is still the target of heavy criticism and has been labelled by some as a Big Brothers' charter. Although there is a widely held belief among MPs that existing legislation affecting the policing of e-communications needs updating, RIP has been accused of being draconian and its proposals of being unclear.

One of the Bill's most outspoken critics is Tory MP Anne Widdecombe, not known for shying away from a fight. Widdecombe described the Bill as "like the curate's egg - it is good in parts". But the member for Maidstone and the Weald stressed it was vital that the Bill "strike a proper balance between the needs of the crime fighter, the legitimate concern of business to avoid overweening regulation and the interest of the citizen in respecting fundamental human rights."

The Bill, announced in the Queen's Speech on 17 November 1999, is due to go to a Select Committee tomorrow (Tuesday 14 March). The Government plans to rush it through the Parliamentary process, making it law by October.

The Tories have already listed 30 amendments to the Bill, and plan to kick up a stink if they don't get their way.

Speaking to The Register, Oliver Heald, Shadow Police Minister and MP for NE Herts, said: "If we don't get the changes we want in the Select Committee, we may decide not to support the Bill."

He labelled RIP as "too vague", saying the Tories' amendments would tackle "technical issues, financial costs and human rights issues".

Opposition from Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition is one thing, but the Bill has also been criticised by Liberal Democrats and some Labour backbenchers.

Simon Hughes, health and social welfare spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "We think the Government are going too far in favour of the state and against the individual", in what he described as "part of a worrying trend".

There are three main parts to the proposed law - Interception of Communications, Intrusive Investigative Techniques and Decryption Powers.

Other issues involve human rights. The proposed decryption powers will make it an offence, punishable by two years in prison, not to turn over an encryption key -- or even a password -- to police. Thus the "innocent until proven guilty" and "right to silence" concepts disappear, even for cases of "lost" keys. This contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights.

More importantly, criminals could get away with a "much easier deal", according to Heald. They could serve two years in jail instead of a heftier sentence for more serious crimes.

Civil liberties groups plan to show their opposition by taking part in a conference in London later this month. The Scrambling for Safety conference will present MPs with a paper outlining the complaints, signed by international civil rights organisations. "The Bill could harm British e-commerce," said Yaman Akdeniz, a director of the Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties group and speaker at the upcoming conference. "The Government is going too far."

More pressure has come from Stand - a group run by 20 people involved in the Internet industry. Stand's current campaign encourages individuals to fax their MP with their RIP worries. In its first week it has averaged 100 faxes a day. "If you're going to have a Bill legalising this, you must put safeguards in it," said Danny O'Brien, one of the founders of Stand.

A Government representative denied the Bill would harm British industry or human rights.

He said businesses would be attracted to the UK if it had one of the safest and crime free Internet systems. He added that the Government "fully recognises the need for encryption...But we want to make sure it is not used by criminals for illegal purposes." ®

The Home Office site with RIP details
Stand's Website
Scrambling for Safety

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