December 11, 2012 10:30 pm

Business backs Clegg on data bill

Businesses have backed Nick Clegg’s call for the Home Office to go “back to the drawing board” on proposals to give the state sweeping new powers to monitor internet communications.

BT, Vodafone and Facebook are among dozens of companies that warned the draft communications data bill was unworkable in its current form.

A highly critical report by a cross-party committee of MPs on Tuesday said the bill would give government “sweeping powers to issue secret notices” and lead to companies being asked to disclose “potentially limitless categories of data”.

While Mr Clegg, the Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister, said he wants the bill significantly redrafted, the Home Office is still committed to giving police and security services new powers to monitor internet activity.

“Operators, internet service providers and social networks will be relieved that the bill does not now look like it will be enacted in its current form,” said Patrick Clark, partner at law firm Taylor Wessing. “Given the backlash I would expect the government to rework the current draft of the bill, toning down its more controversial content.”

Under existing laws, the government can access private data such as the identity of a web user or the location of a mobile phone. In 2011 alone, UK public bodies made almost 500,000 requests for access to such information.

However the Home Office proposed extending these powers to require communications companies to store historical data on everything that users did online for 12 months.

Vodafone said on Tuesday that it would work with the government to “ensure that any new legislation is technically workable and remains relevant to UK law enforcement while protecting the right to privacy for our 19m customers”.

Facebook, which has 30m active users in the UK, said: “We are pleased that the committee has echoed our concerns, particularly about the unsubstantiated costs and benefits of the bill.”

Business unease stems in part from uncertainty about which companies would be caught up in the regulation and exactly what information they would be required to maintain – and at what cost.

The bill’s definition of communications service provider is so broad as to be “almost meaningless”, says Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, a campaign group. “It could even be used to monitor carrier pigeons,” he said.

While UK telecoms providers and internet service providers are the most obvious targets, foreign technology and media groups such as Google, Facebook, Skype and Twitter also hold a large and fast-growing pool of information that the Home Office would like to access.

Even small companies expressed concern. The Coalition for a Digital Economy, a lobby group for start-ups, argued that the bill threatened innovation and risked driving digital businesses away from the UK.

“We are really pleased that the committee recognised the impact that the bill could have on business,” said Sarah Kelly, the group’s director. “In its current format, I don’t think it’s workable.”

 

CHANGES EXPECTED AFTER CRITICISM

 

Downing Street has signalled that ministers will rework plans to give police and security services new powers to monitor communications, in response to fierce criticism of a bill that opponents have dubbed the “snooper’s charter”, writes Helen Warrell.

The Home Office proposals, which would help catch paedophiles and terrorists by tracking their web searches, social networking and Skype calls, were attacked on Tuesday in a cross-party report that urged ministers to narrow the scope of the bill. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat party leader, said the Home Office needed to urgently rethink its plans.

Responding to questions about the coalition disagreement on this issue, the prime minister’s spokesman said that ministers understood that data storage and interception was a “controversial subject”.

“The problem is that as we see technical innovation and greater use of the internet and social media we are losing the capability that we had in the past to deal with certain crimes,” the spokesman said. “We accept the substance of the committee’s criticisms and we will now look at how we can redraft the legislation.”

However, in a column for The Sun newspaper on Tuesday, Theresa May, home secretary, reiterated her desire to press ahead with the legislation and appeared to challenge claims from Liberal Democrat officials that the substantial revisions will go beyond the present parliamentary session.

“I have been absolutely clear that we need to introduce this bill in this session,” she wrote

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