News Release FOR IMMEDIATE USE               Tue 9th May 2000                                                        

Contact:   Caspar Bowden (director of FIPR)

+44 (020) 7354 2333

FIPR report on Third Reading debate in House of Commons (8th May) 

As time ran out for the Third Reading of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill a mass of Government amendments were passed as fast as the Speaker could read them out, but the Bill remains deeply flawed and it will be for the Lords to attempt to sort out the mess. Opposition speakers were reduced to urging changes "in another place" as the Government's massive majority was used to steamroller through a Bill that few MPs seem to understand.

In an unusual role-reversal of Party alignments on civil liberties, the Conservatives opposed the Third Reading in a reasoned amendment that harshly criticised the Internet snooping legislation for its "sad inadequacy" on grounds of "repugnant" human rights incompatibility, and uncompetitive burdens imposed on the UK's fledgling e-economy. Home Office Minister of State Charles Clarke MP reacted angrily, but the LibDems unaccountably supported the Bill whilst levelling the same objections to the infamous "reverse-burden-of-proof" clauses on the possession of keys to unlock computer data.

Oliver Heald MP (Shadow Home Affairs) lambasted the government for their refusal to provide any detailed justification for the assertion that RIP is compatible with the Human Rights Act, despite previous government assurances that such legal controversies would be fully explored in parliamentary debate. The provision requiring a person who has innocently lost an encryption key or forgotten a password to prove this to a court on the "balance of probabilities" in order to establish their defence, overturns the presumption of innocence guaranteeing a fair trial under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, according to a detailed Legal Opinion commissioned by JUSTICE and FIPR. The government has refused an Open Government request to disclose their legal advice, despite a Select Committee recommendation that they should "publish a detailed analysis to substantiate its confidence"[1] and government later declaring themselves willing to do so[2]. Simon Hughes MP (LibDem) mocked this, saying "I have never understood why the Government are so reluctant to disclose the advice, which, by definition, they must claim support their case".

Notes for editors

1.       Comprehensive background, briefing, reports on the RIP Bill, including live links to more than 130 newspaper, radio, TV and Web stories – is at the FIPR RIP Information Centre at

2.       FIPR is an independent non-profit organisation that studies the interaction between information technology and society, with special reference to the Internet; we do not (directly or indirectly) represent the interests of any trade-group. Our goal is to identify technical developments with significant social impact, commission research into public policy alternatives, and promote public understanding and dialogue between technologists and policy-makers in the UK and Europe. The Board of Trustees and Advisory Council ( comprise some of the leading experts in the UK.


Part.1 Chapter.1 – INTERCEPTION


The government introduced amendments which would require a Commons vote before imposing interception requirements on ISPs, but rejected a revived Tory motion to create a Technical Approvals Board comprised of industry experts who would vet Home Office interception wish-lists for cost and feasibility. Heald made a powerful case, citing strong industry support (that Clarke had doubted in Committee) for the TAB from the Federation of the Electronics Industry (who said Heald had "clearly won the argument") and Internet switching centre LINX ("we had always assumed there would be one"). Heald referred to the Home Office's own consultation paper of June 1999 which had promised "an independent body to provide impartial advice on how to balance the requirements of the Agencies and CSPs. This should help to ensure that any requirements are reasonable, proportionate and do not place CSPs at a disadvantage compared with their competitors"[3]. Glossing over this, Clarke said only that ongoing consultations with ISPs would suffice, although ISPA and LINX have recently criticised the poor quality and infrequency of consultation in an open letter of protest to e-Envoy Alex Allen[4].

 In a telling passage, Clarke said that those organisations already subject to interception requirements - i.e. telecommunication companies rather than ISPs - were opposed to a TAB. When challenged whether the Home Office would seek to canvass ISP opinion on this issue, Clarke restated that he had received no requests on the matter and the "process was an open one".

 Clarke rejected the £30m price-tag on costs to ISPs of installing and maintaining interception equipment, because he said he did not envisage all ISPs being required to intercept – tantamount to an admission that the Home Office has abandoned its rationale of “levelling the playing field”. The £30m figure was derived from the report of the Home Office's own consultants[5], making the assumption that the largest 20 of the UK's 400 ISPs would have to take up higher-cost options for blanket interception, whilst the reminder would only install the cheaper "e-mail only" capability. Government also rejected amendments that required ISPs to be compensated for interception costs (rather than discretionary payments) and to report awards of such payments to Parliament.


Big Browser Will Be Watching You

 Harry Cohen MP asked for clarification that communications data, which he pointed out could be requisitioned by thousands of designated public authorities, could not later be used for other purposes such as collection of council tax or vehicle excise. The reply was ambiguous, Mr.Clarke referring only to data protection principles, declining to comment on (DPA98 S.29) tax and customs exemptions which would ostensibly allow inter-departmental fishing expeditions – but did confirm that acquisition of communications data for national security purposes was wholly exempt from controls. Mr.Cohen pointed out that there was no audit trail for any secondary transfers of data, and therefore the Commissioner would be unable to monitor its occurrence or report abuse. Mr.Cohen also deplored the fact that the Data Protection Commissioner had not been given the oversight role for communications data, and referred to her comments on the RIP Bill as “scathing”[6]. The Interception Commissioner now has this responsibility, together with telephone tapping, e-mail interception, and official access to all other types of communications data. Last week the Home Office confirmed that logs of websites browsed are considered communications data, and therefore no warrant is required for any public authority to look at the Web browsing habits of any citizen for any of the very broad purposes allowed (there are also secondary powers to create further purposes not specified on the face of the bill).

Part.3 - DECRYPTION POWERS - So it is key-escrow by intimidation

 After referring to the FIPR/JUSTICE opinion and describing as "repugnant" the reverse-burden of proof defence requiring a  demonstration of something logically impossible, Mr.Heald said that RIP snapped the "golden thread" of British justice - that to be guilty of a criminal offence a person must have a guilty mental intention - 'mens rea'.

Surprisingly Mr.Clarke amended S.69 to exempt company directors from liability under Part.III - that is, they are no longer personally liable for failure of their company to comply with a decryption notice. This was the chief cause of FIPR's diagnosis of government strategy as being that of "key escrow by intimidation" - however it still leaves individuals and company employees in the firing line.

Mr.David Maclean MP gave an eloquent and forthright denunciation of the S.49 offence, saying that it was simply unjust and wrong. When replying on the crux issue of burden-of-proof, Mr.Clarke repeated puzzling previous references to the defence only having to make its case on the "lower” burden of the balance of probabilities - suggesting that he understands "reverse-burden" to mean the defence having to prove innocence beyond reasonable doubt (sic), a concept unknown in any legal system. He re-iterated his position in Standing Committee that the accused could explain what had happened to the key or passphrase, and the court would take that into account. When Simon Hughes MP intervened to point out that these would be excellent arguments if the accused were being given the benefit of a reasonable doubt, instead of a 50:50 chance, Mr.Clarke simply said he did not think Mr.Hughes' view was right.

Mr.Clarke also said he would consider increasing the prison sentence for a S.49 offence if it appeared that serious criminals were resorting to the cunning plan of claiming a bad memory (a subterfuge which FIPR wrote repeatedly to the Home Office about more than two years ago without receiving any reply).

The government introduced an amendment that a key could be demanded instead of plaintext only if it was believed there were "special circumstances", for example a notice served on a suspect rather than a Key Recovery/Escrow Agent  - who by definition was not to be trusted to supply the plaintext of incriminating material. The word "exceptional" rather than "special" had been considered and rejected (because it did not give enough "legal flexibility"), and Mr.Clarke did not repeat earlier assertions that access to keys would only be necessary in a tiny minority of cases.

Part.4 – Oversight

Watchdog in Washington – Commissioners will operate on “need-to-know”


The government again rejected Opposition amendments to unify the system of five Commissioners (six including the DPC), but agreed instead to a "unified secretariat" and the provision of an unspecified capacity to undertake investigations, although the secretariat would operate on a "need-to-know" basis. None of the Codes of Practice arising from RIP were available, and the government promised only to have drafts ready before the Bill became law. Absent from the debate were all members of the Intelligence and Security Committee, the parliamentary watchdog charged with oversight of Britain's spy agencies, who were on an official visit to Washington on committee business.



[3] para 5.6