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Leading internet companies warn Government of 'harmful consequences' of 'snooper' laws

Out-Law News | 31 May 2013 | 4:33 pm | 1 min. read

Five leading internet companies have warned the Government about the "potentially seriously harmful consequences" of creating new laws allowing police and public authorities to monitor electronic communications.

In a letter to the Home Secretary Theresa May, extracts from which were published by The Guardian, the companies warn that the proposals would "threaten the open nature of the internet" and undermine the UK's international reputation as a "leading digital nation". The letter was signed by representatives of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo, the paper said.

The Guardian said that the letter was dated 18 April 2013, shortly before Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg withdrew his support for the Home Office's draft Communications Data Bill. The draft Bill was not included in the Queen's Speech earlier this month, although the Government remains "committed" to giving law enforcement and intelligence agencies "the powers they need to protect the public", according to recent statements made in Parliament by May.

In their letter, the companies said that even with amendments the proposals remained "expensive to implement and highly contentious". They particularly objected to the Bill's "core premise" of requiring internet companies to store the personal data of all their UK-based users for up to 12 months, regardless of where the company was based, according to the Guardian.

"We do not want there to be any doubt about the strength of our concerns in respect of the idea that the UK Government would seek to impose an order on a company in respect of services which are offered by service providers outside the UK," the letter said.

"There are risks in legislating too early in this fast-moving area that can be as significant as the risks of legislating too late," it said.

Communications data is a term that refers to information associated with communications, rather than the contents of those communications themselves. Data can include the time of communications, the location in which communications are initiated and received and the phone numbers or IP addresses of those communicating.

The draft Communications Data Bill (123-page / 663KB PDF), published by the Home Office in June 2012 contained new requirements to retain communications data for businesses that transmit "communications by any means involving the use of electrical or electro-magnetic energy". If introduced, the Bill would give law enforcement bodies and other designated public authorities access to this information in order to protect the UK's national security and prevent or detect crime, subject to particular procedures and safeguards.

The Government has claimed that these new powers are necessary because existing laws are insufficient to enable intelligence and security agencies to track criminal activity. It has said that 25% of communications cannot be accessed due to the limitations in the current framework. Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), law enforcement agencies can force telecoms companies to hand over customers' details in order to intercept phone, internet or email communications in certain circumstances.