The UK government's plans to retain email data and rate online content will cost too much, destroy business, liberty and must be stopped – start making placards

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Hands on with the Novatel Wireless MiFi

From March this year all ISPs will by law have to keep information about every e-mail sent or received in the UK for a year. Currently many do this on a voluntary basis but this will now become mandatory. With little evidence to support their position, the government says this move is vital for monitoring crime and combating terrorist activity. The new rules are due to come into force on 15 March, as part of a European Commission directive which could affect every ISP in the country. It will cost between £25m and £70m. The rules already apply to telephone companies, which routinely hold much of the data for billing. The Home Office think the data is vital for investigation and intelligence gathering.

The Home Office insists the data will not contain the email content but data about when and where it was sent. But of course we all known that it is quite possible to work out quite a lot from email headers. This data will be accessible by over 600 public bodies, such as the police and councils, if they make a “valid” request.

Dr Richard Clayton, a security researcher at the University of Cambridge’s computer lab, points out that this will include all the spam out there and would rather see more focused online policing than catch-all initiatives like this. Of course, once the government has this power, they will not draw back from it, and most likely extend it once again, as governments are want to do.

This is not all.

The government has plans for a bigger data retention scheme called the Interception Modernisation Programme involving one central database, gathering details on every text sent, e-mail sent, phone call made and website visited. Consultation on the plans is due to begin later this year.

At the same time, this week, culture secretary Andy Burnham suggested “unsuitable” websites be given cinema-style ratings, a move which played well with some parenting organisations – but as most people who know anything about how the Internet works know, this idea is unworkable.

Yes, pornography is easy to access online, but the solution does not lie in rating web sites (the content of which, unlike films, can change from page to page) but getting parents and schools to educate children about how best to use the Web. There are also technical solutions local to desktop PCs like using OpenDNS or net-nanny software.

As the Guardian recently, and succinctly, pointed out:

“People would be outraged if BT monitored telephone calls for explicit conversations or the Post Office for unseemly letters, yet government is considering such options for ISPs. The monitoring of any such system would be very expensive. It would also incriminate innocent people and make much bigger incursions into the privacy of everyone than could be justified by the few successes it might get. The big porn operators, usually pioneers of new technology, would switch overnight to another corner of the web.”

Plus, how do you rate sites? Who does the rating? I agree with the Guardian: “The government should save the money that might be lavished on an ineffectual Big Brother solution and spend it instead on a concerted campaign to make parents aware of what they can do for themselves.”

What is most incredible about these government proposals, is that one side of the government is not talking to the other. Tom Watson, a cabinet office minister who I am generally a fan of, has made great claim to creating a more listening culture inside government about the innovation economy that technology startups represent. He has held lavish receptions in London and talked a great deal about the amazing technology companies coming out of the UK. He even set up a web site called Showusabetterway.com – about “helping government become more open, transparent and effective through better use of published information.”

But with one hand the government seeks to lock down the British Internet with an iron fist, while at the same time telling us it is boosting innovation and business online.

It is quite clearly blind to the fact that one affects the other.

Are we also expected to think that the consumers using online services are not going to be put off from engaging in the boom of “sharing” that Web 2.0 created? How would you feel if every Twitter you sent, every video uploaded, was to be stored and held against you in perpetuity? That may not happen, but the mere suggestion that your email is no longer private would serve to kill the UK population’s relish for new media stone dead, and with it large swathes of the developing online economy.

These proposals will affect both the blooming of online culture in this country, the development of the innovation economy and its civil liberties – all in one fell swoop.

What is to be done about this?

Well, one approach might be a coalition of civil liberties campaigners, digital rights groups and business. The Open Rights Group is a key thought leader in this. There is also an interesting looking event on soon: The Convention on Modern Liberty. But I also hope that more mainstream figures who are in some way associated with tech, perhaps Stephen Fry, can be persuaded to join.

Why should business get involved?

Mark my words, business would be affected by this: startup technology companies, already restricted by plenty of red tape associated with setting up a business would now have to build in plans for content ratings, tracing users, capturing data for the Home Office – you name it.

And when terrorists can merely default to VOIP or messaging services held on servers outside the UK – hell, they are even using online games to pass messages not old-fashioned, traceable email – it seems utterly ludicrous to subject the ENTIRE population to this burden. All this legislation will do is drive organised crime and terrorists deeper into parts of the Net where they will be virtually impossible to trace, leaving the rest of us monitored like battery chickens.

On Monday I will be calling Westminster Council about how we can go about setting up a public rally against these initiatives, and I’d like to hear from anyone else who wants to get involved.

Stay tuned.

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