June 28 2000

Internet regulation

From the Director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research

Sir, The Home Secretary (letter, June 14) says it is a "myth" that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill requires Internet service providers to install "black boxes" linked to MI5. He is correct; S12(1)b merely grants him the power to order this at his discretion. Big Browser could be watching you wherever you go online, because RIP empowers 28 public authorities to snoop on which webpages you visit, without judicial or ministerial warrant.

RIP allows any public authority to demand any password or key to any computer, website or e-mail for any official purpose (S46(2)bii). Mr Straw correctly says that the prosecution must prove past possession of the key, but that is cold comfort because the defence must prove non-possession at the present time. Moreover, since there is no evidence when someone forgets something, criminals will always be able to plead a bad memory, discrediting the defence for the innocent.

Mr Straw says he will normally allow companies to hand over plain text, but companies and their customers should not forget that RIP allows keys to future material to be demanded as well, and under a general secrecy condition. Industry sought reassurance that this could occur only in "exceptional" circumstances, but the amendment referred only to "special" circumstances yet to be defined.

RIP targets criminals as accurately as a sawn-off shotgun pointed at a crowd, and puts Kafka on the statute book. A law which replaces the presumption of innocence by an ordeal without evidence, with two years' jail if one is not believed, is not a question of "balance". It is simply wrong.

Yours sincerely,
Director, Foundation for Information Policy Research,
9 Stavordale Road, N5 1NE.
June 14.