Where next for the "snoopers' charter"?

Home Office thinks controversial bill will become law by 2014, but campaigners want changes before then

Stewart Mitchell
2 Nov 2012

The Draft Communication Data Bill – the unpopular proposed legislation aimed at giving security service more access to consumers' communication data – has come under fire yet again. What does this mean for the Home Office's plans?

The Home Secretary Theresa May gave evidence in front of select committee of MPs this week, explaining why the government felt security services needed access to communications data such as email header and footers.

While the proposals have met widespread criticism from rights groups and commentators, including MPs at recent hearings, May has not given any guarantees that the weight of public sentiment will result in changes to the draft as it moves through the legislative process.

In fact, during evidence to the select she reiterated the line that "the bill will save lives", and she looks determined to see the draft pushed into law.

The Home Office has refused to explain the problem it is trying to solve because if it does do that it would aid criminality by pointing out those problems

The next stage of the process that looks likely to be pushed into law is for the select committee that's been hearing the pre-legislative arguments to prepare a report on the benefits - or otherwise - of the legislation and to highlight concerns raised during evidence.

May would not be drawn on whether the Home Office was considering amendments to the draft before it went to Parliament. "I’m not able to say how much we would look at until I have read the reports of the committee," she said, before admitting some of the wording could have been clearer. "We recognise the interpretation of certain parts of the draft have been misinterpreted."

According to sources, that report is scheduled to be released at the end of the month, but could be delayed due to the complicated subject matter.

However, as the draft bill moves toward becoming law there is no guarantee that any of the comments will be taken on board.

"They've had months of deliberations and public evidence and the committee has to come to some kind of recommendation. But the government is entitled to ignore them completely," said Jim Killock, chief executive of the Open Rights Group.

"These types of pre-legislative scrutiny have sometimes gone absolutely nowhere. There's danger at this point that the report isn't taken serious, although the Liberal Democrats are looking at this very closely so it could have some impact."

However, the timeline for the legislation has become clearer, with May suggesting that the final, rather than draft, version of the bill will be introduced later in this parliamentary session, which runs until next summer.

It would then be carried over into the next session, with May outlining plans for the bill to become law as early as 2014.

Big issues remain

While the procession might have an air of inevitability about, critics say there are many issues still to be resolved and that the pre-legislative process was too secretive to be meaningful.

"The Home Office hasn't been open enough about why the bill is needed," said Killock. "The Home Office has refused to explain the problem it is trying to solve because if it does do that it would aid criminality by pointing out those problems. They are saying we have to trust them and so that is the end of the debate."

There are also concerns that the bill leaves too much room for changes in the future if, for example, major web companies increased their use of encryption in a bid to circumvent the data logging. Such a move might make it more difficult to separate out the communications data, such as headers and footers, from the actual content of messages.

"Encryption is increasing, and the bill will accelerate this trend - the Home Office seems to have no answer to this issue," said Nick Pickles, Big Brother Watch director. "The question of how overseas services will be affected - and if UK ISPs will really tolerate being told to monitor their customers use of them - is still far from resolved."

However, May said that legislation for technical challenges had to be flexible if they were to meet the changing shape of the industry before it had moved on.

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