Lib Dems To Withdraw Support For ‘Snoopers Charter’

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Nick Clegg is on the verge of withdrawing support for the controversial Communications Data Bill

The Lib Dems are reportedly considering dropping their support for the Communications Data Bill, which is widely regarded by its many critics as nothing more than a ‘Snooper’s Charter’ as it allows police access to personal data without a warrant.

Next week a report on the draft version of the Communication Data Bill, compiled by a parliamentary committee of MPs and peers, will be released. That report is reportedly expected to be highly critical of the Bill.

Dead Duck?

The Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg will apparently use the arrival of this report to break ranks with the Coalition government and oppose the bill, according to the BBC, which quoted “party sources.”

The same sources told the BBC that Mr Clegg had met the Prime Minister face to face earlier this week to discuss the issue, and was apparently “noncommittal” about the bill’s future.

The Labour Party meanwhile has yet to announce whether it will support the bill, although it accpets there is an security issue that needs addressing. But the potential loss of Lib Dem support, and possible Labour opposition could scupper the chances of the Bill becoming law in its current form.

“The report gives Nick an opportunity to kill the bill for good and that’s what he wants to do,” a senior Lib Dem minister told the BBC, while another commented: “This is a dead duck. It is a question of when, not if.”

Officially, the Communication Data Bill is still fully supported by the Home Office, which has continued to publicly back it and pledges to get the bill onto the statute book by 2014, despite concerns about its impact on privacy and its tricky technical aspects.

One of the fears was that the government would use the Bill to force UK ISPs to install black boxes to separate content from communications data. However TechWeekEurope was informed earlier this year that the Home Office was distancing itself from that idea.

The bill essentially would provide the police and intelligence agencies with speedier access to communications data on suspects. The government has repeatedly stressed the Communications Data Bill is designed to catch terrorists and serious offenders, and that it would not allow authorities to view the content of any communications, only who has contacted whom, from where and when.

Yet the bill has been met with fierce opposition, with many claiming the proposals would allow for serious intrusions on people’s privacy, as communications providers would be told to keep hold of information for 12 months. The bill’s opponents also argue that the safeguards proposed do not go far enough. In particular, they are concerned that applications for access to comms data, can be signed off by senior officers without needing a warrant or approval from courts.

Critical Report

The forthcoming report from the joint committee on the draft Communications Data Bill, expected next week, is expected to voice its own concerns about the bill. According to the BBC, the committee will argue that:

  • The Home Office has failed to make the case for the new laws, not least by failing to show how the police use existing laws to monitor mobile phone data.
  • The bill infringes civil liberties and invades privacy by allowing the police access to a mass of new data without adequate safeguards. In particular, they will argue that in some internet use – particularly social media sites – it is difficult to distinguish between the details of the communication and the actual content of the message.
  • The measure would damage British businesses by forcing phone companies and internet service providers to store at huge cost for 12 months masses of new data that they would not otherwise keep.
  • The new pool of data would be open to abuse and present a security threat.

“It is critical of the approach the Home Office initially took and recommends more caution and a more proportionate way forward,” a committee source told the BBC.

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