The government is back-pedalling on controversial aspects of its Internet-surveillance Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill that is currently under consideration in the House of Lords.
The U-turn comes after pressure from privacy and business groups, as well as from Internet service providers (ISPs).
The Home Office, which proposed and is overseeing the, will send amendments on the Bill to the House of Lords this week for discussion Wednesday.
Sweeping powers The Bill, which has passed the House of Commons, gives the government sweeping powers to access email and other encrypted Internet communications. A Home Office spokesman said: "We've been listening to suggestions being made by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) and others, and with the amendments, we are trying to offer reassurances to industry while trying to maintain the balance of the Bill."
The government spokesman denied that Home Secretary Jack Straw is attempting to avert a revolt in the House of Lords, or that the move is a significant change of tactics for the government. He said: "We've been making amendments to the bill throughout the process, as we do with any Bill."
Secret service control RIP, due for a second reading by the House of Lords at the end of the month, would require ISPs in the UK to track all data traffic passing through its computers and route it to the Government Technical Assistance Centre (GTAC). The GTAC is being established in MI5’s London headquarters.
Under the provisions of the Bill, the Home Office and its head, the Home Secretary, can demand encryption keys to all data communications, with a prison sentence of two years for those who fail to comply with the order.
Furthermore, if a company official is asked to surrender an encryption key to the government, that individual is barred by law from telling anyone - including their employer, be it senior management or security staff - that they have done so.
Home protection While UK employees are protected against the consequences of passing encryption keys or encrypted data to the government, that protection does not extend outside the UK.
The RIP bill already has 229 amendments, which must be addressed by the House of Lords, but the government's new amendments are meant to deal with the more controversial aspects of the Bill, the Home Office spokesman said.
The Home Office spokesman said: "We want to make the definitions clearer. For example, we can request a list of Web sites visited from an ISP, just as we can ask the telephone company for a record of a person's phone calls. But if we open up those URLs and see how a person has interacted with that site, that is very different, and it has never been our intention to obtain that sort of data."
U-turn denial The government is not looking to back down from those aspects of the RIP bill which are coming under attack, but wishes to clear up any confusion that may be causing concern within the business community, he added.
"The 'tipping off offence' is not something we envision being used frequently or widely, but it’s necessary. There are times when our investigations are covert. But we fully understand the importance of those keys, and it is more important to reassure business and industry that the keys will be kept very secure," the spokesman claimed.
Civil-liberty organizations are worried that the Bill will harm privacy, while businesses fear it will force e-commerce companies to move operations to other countries. UK ISPs are also concernedithat the costs of establishing the technology required by the RIP bill will be crippling. The BCC has estimated that implementing the RIP bill will cost industry £46 billion over five years.