Photograph by Cristiano Betta

A month ago, we wrote about how the UK’s infamous “Snooper’s Charter” had been scuppered by Nick Clegg, the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister. The Guardian now reveals that top Internet companies may have played a key role in this decision:

The five biggest internet companies in the world, including Google and Facebook, have privately delivered a thinly veiled warning to the home secretary, Theresa May, that they will not voluntarily co-operate with the “snooper’s charter”.

In a leaked letter to the home secretary that is also signed by Twitter, Microsoft and Yahoo!, the web’s “big five” say that May’s rewritten proposals to track everybody’s email, internet and social media use remain “expensive to implement and highly contentious”.

In the letter, originally posted online by the Guardian, but now taken down for some reason, the Internet companies write:

Although it seems that the revised Bill will address some of the concerns we and others raised in evidence to that [Parliamentary] Committee, we expect that the core premise of the Bill — to create a new form of retention order for the data of UK-based users of communications services — will remain highly contentious.

However, we also do not want there to be any doubt about the strength of our concerns in respect of the idea 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 rather pointedly invokes efforts to promote online freedom around the world:

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office in particular has played a leading role in promoting the value of freedom of expression on the Internet on the global stage. This freedom of expression is intimately linked to the fact that the Internet services are offered globally unlike traditional media channels, which may be under different degrees of state control in many parts of the world. Key to being able to offer a global Internet service is the understanding that the service provider can work primarily within the legal framework of its home jurisdiction.

It then paints a picture of what might happen if other countries brought in their own Snooper’s Charter:

Service providers like ours can and do make reasonable accommodations to reflect local concerns and legal requirements including in the UK. But this is very different from a chaotic world within which every country seeks to impose potentially conflicting requirements on a global service provider in sensitive areas like the retention of personal data.

As the Guardian article explains:

The companies also detail an alternative approach to extend existing arrangements for them to meet the requests for personal data from the police and security services, including a new UK-US bilateral initiative to make the process faster and more efficient.

The letter concludes:

The Internet is still a relatively young technology. It brings enormous benefits to citizens everywhere and is a great force for economic and social development. The UK has rightly positioned itself as a leading digital nation. There are risks in legislating too early in this fast-moving area that can be as significant as the risks of legislating too late. We would urge you to follow the approach we have outlined above and see how far the needs of UK law enforcement can be met by improving existing legal instruments and treaties before making significant legislative changes.

This is a pretty significant move, underlined by the fact that traditional rivals have come together to form a common front against the UK government. If companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Twitter refuse to cooperate with the UK’s surveillance plans, it will make the scheme much more difficult to operate, particularly when it comes to spying on encrypted data streams.

Unfortunately, whereas the Snooper’s Charter looked pretty moribund a month ago, matters have been changed by the recent brutal murder of a soldier on London’s streets. This has led to a knee-jerk reaction from some, who have called for the Snooper’s Charter to be revived. But it turns out that the alleged attackers were already known to the UK’s secret services, which suggests that the extreme surveillance powers contained in the Snooper’s Charter are simply not necessary. Let’s hope that the main Internet companies stick to their line of non-cooperation, and that the UK government realizes that the Snooper’s Charter is not just pernicious, but unworkable.

Written by Glyn Moody
Follow @glynmoody on Twitter or, and on Google+


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