On publication of the Electronic Communications Bill today, fears were raised about unanswered law enforcement issues, and the costs for ISPs if they end up footing the bill for decoding encrypted data.
Part three of the Bill, dealing with law enforcement powers that give police access to encrypted material, has been removed. However, it will be added to the Home Office Investigatory Powers Bill which updates the existing Interception of Communications Act to cover the Internet.
Home Office Minister Charles Clarke gave few clues about the details, but he promised that "any legislation will be compliant with the Human Rights Act." He said that the Home Office is considering the use of judicial warrants and issues such as the burden of proof, "but we [the government] are not ready to go into details," although there will be no further formal consultation process.
Nicola McKilligan, strategic policy and international officer for the Data Protection Registrar, said: "If the bill is very different from before and covers new ground, it would be nice to be consulted. We will keep a careful eye."
Yaman Adkeniz, director of Cyber Rights & Cyber Liberties, said: "Whether the Home Office will take into account the strong criticism received during the consultation process remains to be seen."
Clarke acknowledged the cost issue for ISPs, which could add as much as 15 per cent to their running costs. He said: "It is a legitimate issue for ISPs to raise. We must get to a reasonable estimate of what the costs will be."
E-minister Patricia Hewitt responded: "We will work with the Home Office to validate costs."
Grahame Davies, group managing director for ISP Easynet, commented: "We are concerned about the lack of detail. It is not clear in what position we are placed. It is deliberate on the part of the Home Office because they don't want to hold themselves to predefined criteria."
He feared it could be expensive, particularly for small ISPs: "The technical work involved is not necessarily in proportion to the size of their network."
At the briefing, Hewitt stressed her determination to get Internet access costs down. She said she would be looking at getting non-metered peak Internet access calls to reduce barriers for small businesses.
She said Oftel has "significant powers in this field" but she did not rule out intervention if Oftel cannot push BT to adopt new tariffs.
"It is a very high priority," she said. "It is closely under review."
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