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Wednesday, November 17, 1999 Published at 15:15 GMT


Police net powers switched

There are no details yet of the controversial area of law enforcement

The UK Government appears to have given in to pressure to amend controversial legislation about the internet and e-commerce.

The Queen announces the Electronic Communications Bill
The Electronic Communications Bill was announced by the Queen in her speech to Parliament on Wednesday, but without the most heavily criticised part of the draft bill published in July. Instead, that part has been recycled into a new Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill.

The contentious proposal suggests powers to allow the police to monitor suspicious internet activity in the same way that they can tap phone calls. But it was said it would also force people to hand over the software key to encrypted data and convict them if they did not. This suggested reversal of the burden of proof has been heavily criticised.

"Would it be sensible to imprison someone for forgetting the PIN number to a bank card?" said Caspar Bowden, director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research.

"Get-out clause"

Civil rights experts said the new Bill appeared to be a get-out clause, allowing the government to drop the unpopular part of the Electronic Communications Bill without losing face.

The Queen's Speech
But Mr Bowden congratulated the recently appointed "e-Minister" Patricia Hewitt for her intervention.

"The e-Minister (Patricia Hewitt) must be congratulated for performing a skilful political amputation to save British e-commerce. The shortened Bill still threatens unnecessary regulation, but at least now can do much less harm," he said.

A Home Office spokeswoman said the new Bill was simply "a new vehicle" for achieving the same ends: "We have taken the Home Office elements out of the original Department of Trade and Industry Bill, and will use a different vehicle to take them through Parliament.

"As the E-C Bill has already gone through a public consultation period, there will be no need to consult on that section again. But we will incorporate the findings of the public consultation into the wording of the new Bill," she added.

Electronic signatures

With the removal of its investigative powers section, the Electronic Communications Bill is now largely uncontroversial.

  • Cryptography regulation: Provision of the cryptography necessary for secure internet transactions will be self-regulated by the industry, as they has argued for. If self-regulation fails however, there will be powers to set up a statutory scheme, though it would still be voluntary.
  • Electronic signatures: New legislation would provide a legal basis for the electronic signing of messages, "so that people will be able to check who sent the message and ensure it has not been tampered with." These signatures would also be recognised by the courts.
  • Paper documents: Some existing laws insist on the use of paper but these requirements will be "swept away wherever it makes sense to do so".
  • Telecommunication licenses: New laws will make it easier for the telecommunications regulator Oftel to update the licenses issued to operators.

The government's stated aim is to "develop the UK as the best environment worldwide in which to trade electronically".

It has pledged to take a lead in the promotion of e-commerce by setting an ambitious target that 90% of the routine goods the government buys will be purchased electronically by 2001.

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Internet Links

Draft bill in HTML format

Draft Electronic Communications Bill

Foundation For Information Policy Research


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