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dot life Monday, 24 June, 2002, 10:52 GMT 11:52 UK
The fax machine uprising
Fax machine
Simple but effective
How did a loose collective of internet users force a government U-turn on controversial changes to digital privacy laws? The answer is that they did it using simple technology to create a large-scale grassroots protest campaign almost overnight.
If you think most internet geeks are a bunch of self-interested games-addicted cynics with eyes for little else but their computer screens, it's time to think again.

Last week, the UK online community scored a dramatic victory over government plans to give all sorts of public bodies access to records of everyone's e-mail and phone records.

And it all happened astonishingly fast. Within days of the alarm being raised, Home Secretary David Blunkett publicly apologised for "getting it wrong".

Cabinet ministers aren't in the habit of backing down on changes to the law just because someone gripes about it. This campaign was different.

David Blunkett
Home Secretary David Blunkett admitted proposals were a mistake
The story begins two years ago, when the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act was passed, after much opposition from the online community.

RIP was designed to let the authorities demand private information about people's habits on the internet and on their mobile phones from the companies that provide internet and phone connections.

Originally, RIP's definition of "authorities" was limited to the police, Customs, and the secret services. The limit was set because the powers allowed under RIP did not need approval by a judge - a senior police officer just had to sign a piece of paper saying the RIP powers were needed.

But suddenly earlier this month the Home Office announced that it wanted to amend that list of "authorities". Now it would include local councils, government departments, even the Royal Mail.

Privacy experts were horrified.


It was a good strategy, and I'm glad we randomly stumbled upon it.

Danny O'Brien
What annoyed them more was that the Home Office wanted to change the rules by using a parliamentary procedure called a "statutory instrument". This meant that no debate would be required in the House of Commons - unless a sufficient number of MPs demanded one.

Objectors thought that the Home Office was trying to pull a fast one under everyone's noses.

Implications

Enter the geek protesters. Leading the charge was a small group of people, known collectively as Stand.

Stand was set up when RIP originally appeared by a group of concerned internet veterans. It encouraged people to "adopt their MP" and make sure that he or she understood the implications of RIP.

That campaign failed, and Stand went pretty quiet for a while. Two weeks ago, the group behind it were planning to re-launch as all-purpose "internet lobbyists", according to James Cronin, one of the team.

"We were putting together a plan for a new site anyway. The idea was for us to take on the role of being the internet lobbyists, covering various digital issues," he says.

"We wanted to create a site that would become a collating point for information, a home for anyone who wants to be able to play an active part in defining digital freedoms in the UK. And then within hours of us launching it, this RIP story exploded."

Stand swung into action by making the most of its contacts, encouraging as many of them as possible to send faxes directly to their local MP, to complain about the Home Office proposal. The word spread fast, as things tend to do on the internet.

FaxYourMP.com screen grab
FaxYourMP.com worked overtime
The fax campaign was possible thanks to a website called faxyourmp.com, which itself was created in the aftermath of the first Stand campaign two years ago.

Faxyourmp.com does exactly what it says it will. When users enter their postcode, it tells them who their MP is, and then allows them to send a fax explaining their case.

Hundreds of faxes were sent in just a few days, enough for an average of two for every MP.

This got noticed in Westminster. MPs started responding directly, in some cases contacting the faxers and asking them to explain more.

Many people sending faxes were among Stand's wide network of internet friends, part of the UK's web development community. Others were spurred on by further campaigning by the Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR), a think-tank that shared Stand's objections to the Home Office plan.

Some even represented the organisations that were proposed to have access to RIP powers - people concerned that their small departments would never have the time or resources to effectively take on such a huge responsibility.

Media coverage

Not only did the fax campaign help, it did so in record time. Within days, the government was talking about postponing the debate until July. A couple of days later, it announced the plan had been shelved indefinitely.

Stand and its supporters celebrated, surprised - but nonetheless delighted - with the success of the fax campaign and the amount of media coverage it generated.

As another Stand team member, Danny O'Brien, says: "It was a good strategy, and I'm glad we randomly stumbled upon it."

The campaign doesn't end there. Although officially postponed, the changes to RIP may still re-emerge. Stand, the FIPR, and their supporters are determined to be ready for it next time.

Ultimately, they see their success as a result of changing attitudes to the internet.

As James Cronin says: "People's attitude towards the way the internet and other communications technologies interact with their lives has changed quite fundamentally since the first Stand campaign. People's digital lives are now much more real to them."

Weely guide to getting buttoned up

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