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UK Privacy Groups Attack ISP Silence Over Internet Snooping Talks

Tuesday, Apr 23rd, 2013 (1:32 pm) - Score 651

The Open Rights Group, Privacy International and Big Brother Watch have today attacked some of the United Kingdom’s best known ISPs for betraying their customers by engaging “in a conspiracy of silence with the Home Office” over controversial proposals to expand the country’s existing internet snooping law (Communications Data Bill).

In an Open Letter (published below), which was sent to the heads of Virgin Media, Sky Broadband, TalkTalk, BT, O2 and Zen Internet (plus Royal Mail), the privacy advocates accused ISPs of damaging the case against such proposals by taking part in “closed meetings” with the government that could allegedly result in the providers being “co-opted as an arm of the state” to spy on innocent citizens.

The Open Letter

One year ago, it became public knowledge that the Government intends to introduce legislation relating to communications data. We did not learn of this in Parliament, but in media leaks.

It has become clear that a critical component of the Communications Data Bill is that UK communication service providers will be required by law to create data they currently do not have any business purpose for, and store it for a period of 12 months.

Plainly, this crosses a line no democratic country has yet crossed – paying private companies to record what their customers are doing solely for the purposes of the state.

These proposals are not fit for purpose, which possibly explains why the Home Office is so keen to ensure they are not aired publicly.

There has been no public consultation, while on none of your websites is there any reference to these discussions. Meetings have been held behind closed doors as policy has been developed in secret, seemingly the same policy formulated several years ago despite widespread warnings from technical experts.

That your businesses appear willing to be co-opted as an arm of the state to monitor every single one of your customers is a dangerous step, exacerbated by your silence

Consumers are increasingly concerned about their privacy, both in terms of how much data is collected about them and how securely that data is kept. Many businesses have made a virtue of respecting consumer privacy and ensuring safe and secure internet access.

Sadly, your customers have not had the opportunity to comment on these proposals. Indeed, were it not for civil society groups and the media, they would have no idea such a policy was being considered.

We believe this is a critical failure not only of Government, but a betrayal of your customers’ interests. You appear to be engaged in a conspiracy of silence with the Home Office, the only concern being whether or not you will be able to recover your costs.

We urge you to withdraw your participation in a process that in our view is deeply flawed, pursuing a pre-determined solution that puts competition, security and privacy at risk in an unprecedented way.

With best wishes,

Jim Killock, Executive Director, Open Rights Group
Nick Pickles, Director, Big Brother Watch
Sam Smith, Technologist, Privacy International

The new letter follows shortly after the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) formally ordered the Home Office to publish any advice that ministers received regarding the design, cost and risks for key parts of the bill (here). A group of leading academics and computer experts have also written open letters to the government, which warn against adoption of the “naïve and technically dangerous” plans.

But the Internet Services Providers’ Association (ISPA UK) told ISPreview.co.uk only yesterday that it expected a revised version of the bill to be published “imminently” and pledged to “examine it closely alongside our members, parliamentarians and other stakeholders as part of the parliamentary scrutiny the bill will receive“. Sadly much of that “scrutiny” seems to be taking place in private.

It should be said that many ISPs also have concerns about the somewhat poorly estimated costs and practically of introducing such a system. Indeed it might actually be beneficial that providers are engaging in this way as they would hopefully be in the best position to express such concerns to the government.

On the other hand there’s no denying that the new proposals have received stiff opposition. Last year the Joint Committee responsible for conducting pre-legislative scrutiny even described the bill as “overkill” (here) and called for it to be “significantly amended“ or risk the prospect of having the new legislation blocked.

The Queen’s Speech on 8th May 2013 is likely to feature an amended version of the bill.

Mark-Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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