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UK Communications Data Bill dealt serious blow

(Index on Censorship/IFEX) - 11 December 2012 - Home Secretary Theresa May's plans to store information on every citizen's use of email, the web, and phones have been dealt a severe blow by a parliamentary committee report.

In a report seen by Index on Censorship, the Joint Committee on the Communications Data Bill described the proposed new law as "too sweeping", and going "further than it need or should".

The committee was particularly concerned by a clause in the bill that would give the Home Secretary the power to extend the remit of the law at any time, without putting the changes before parliament. The government claimed that this was needed in order to "future proof" the legislation, saying it would otherwise be impossible to keep pace with digital communications innovation.

But critics of the Communications Data Bill, including Index, said the clause was unacceptable, allowing huge levels of surveillance and storage without any democratic oversight. The committee today endorsed that view, while acknowledging the need for governments to be able to carry out limited surveillance.

Currently, communications service providers store data on communications traffic for one year. The government's proposal would oblige them to hold it indefinitely. The Home Office defines "communications data" as: "[T]he information about a communication. It can include the time and duration of a communication, the number or email address of the originator and recipient and sometimes the location of the device from which the communication was made."

The cross-party committee of lords and MPs also criticised the government's consultation on the bill, saying: "Meaningful consultation can take place only once there is clarity as to the real aims of the Home Office, and clarity as to the expected use of the powers under the bill."

The bill's proposal for a "request filter", allowing government agencies to search stored information, also came under fire. While acknowledging the capacity would have certain benefits, the report warns that safeguards should be introduced to minimise the risk of "fishing expeditions", by restricting search criteria.

Index on Censorship welcomed the report: Head of Advocacy Mike Harris said: "The Joint Committee report supports what Index has been saying all along: that the draft Communications Data Bill would threaten the privacy and free expression of British citizens, effectively reversing the presumption of innocence and potentially chilling the information that we share. If enacted in its current form, it would mean that the UK had one of the most draconian data laws in the western world, giving justification to surveillance tactics carried out by authoritarian states such as Belarus and Kazakhstan."

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