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Law, Order and Freedom Online

In Soviet Britain Internet Watches You

While what the IWF does is, technically a form of censorship, you would have to be extremely committed to the idea of freedom of expression to have a problem with a group whose role includes blocking images of child pornography.

Given that the IWF seems to be more like a Policeman trying to cover the ruder bits of a streaker at Wimbledon as opposed to some sort of draconian enforcer it might be tempting to think that in Britain everything is just great on the Internet.

This is sadly not quite the case as recent developments have shown, although the recent trend from the Home Office seems to be less towards censoring the content of the Internet but more towards logging everything you say on it and everything you look at.

The reasoning for this approach is highlighted by the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith in her introduction to a consultation document entitled 'Protecting the Public In A Changing Communications Environment’ presented to Parliament in April 2009. It's a document that sets out the Government's aim of using data as a law enforcement tool.

Law, Order and Freedom Online In Soviet Britain Internet Watches You
The UK's current terrorism threat level at the time of publication - severe

In the document, the Minister writes: “Governed by a strict regulatory framework, communications data is routinely used to investigate terrorist plots, to bring to justice those guilty of serious crimes, to seize illegal drugs and to protect the vulnerable in our society. It is no exaggeration to say that information gathered in this way can mean the difference between life and death. However, rapid technological changes in the communications industry could have a profound effect on the use of communications data for these and other purposes. The capability and protection we have come to expect could be undermined.”

The consultation document aims to ”set out these changes . . . and the Government’s proposed response to them . . . [the] intention is to find a model which . . . strikes the right balance between maximising public protection and minimising intrusion into individuals’ private lives.”

Given that the Home Office states that the UK’s current terrorism threat level is ‘Severe’ which “means that a terrorist attack is highly likely”, and we’re still bogged down quite heavily in the ‘Overseas Contingency Operations’ (previously known as the War on Terror) perhaps there is a case for increasing security.

The consultation document makes it clear that monitoring the Internet is occupying much Government thought time, and there have been three recent approaches made towards being able to scrutinise our online habits in an attempt to enforce law and order. The first Home Office plan to have a single database into which all our information was stored was roundly rejected. The second plan, which is outlined in the above mentioned consultation paper, involves ISPs storing data about users. This means less information in the hands of Government, but arguably it amounts to much the same thing as the first plan, except with less security.

Law, Order and Freedom Online In Soviet Britain Internet Watches YouA third approach is also being pursued and it relates to the activities of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Going under the anonymous name ‘Mastering the Internet’ (MTI), this approach involves the placing of clandestine recording devices at key points within the British communications network to monitor traffic. Its existence was only revealed by mistake in a GCHQ recruitment advert. The MTI programme is, according to The Times already being set up:

"GCHQ placed an advertisement in the specialist IT press for a head of major contracts to be given “operational responsibility for the ‘Mastering the Internet’ (MTI) contract”. The senior official, to be paid an annual salary of up to £100,000, would lead the procurement of the hardware and the analysis tools needed to build and run the system. Ministers have said they do not intend to snoop on the actual content of emails or telephone calls. The monitoring will instead focus on who an individual is communicating with or which websites and chat rooms they are visiting."

Yes, GCHQ is considered to be an arm of the intelligence services and yes, we’re scared too. GCHQ did deny the story, issuing a statement which said that, "GCHQ is not developing technology to enable the monitoring of all Internet use and phone calls in Britain, or to target everyone in the UK". The statement went on to say the MTI was simply an attempt to keep GCHQ abreast of developing technology:

"Just as our predecessors at Bletchley Park mastered the use of the first computers, today, partnering with industry, we need to master the use of Internet technologies and skills that will enable us to keep one step ahead of the threats. This is what mastering the Internet is about."

A number of groups are trying to keep the authorities interest in monitoring the web honest - the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Liberty and there’s a 'CC All Your Emails To Jacqui Smith Day’ protest in the pipeline. What the Government proposes is a complex system and as such, so are the arguments against it: a good outline of the arguments against the proposed measures can be found here, but they essentially boil down to whether the system will work, whether it’s the start of a slippery slope, and how the data will fare given the Government’s absolutely atrocious record when it comes to data security. As the Home Office is still at the stage of issuing a consultation document, you can give your opinions on the document and the Home Office’s ideas up until the 20th of July.