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 – 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.

  • Dungeekin

    It’s all part of the New Labour Grand Plan for a spot of Totalitarian Government.

    It’s also the next step in their Data Mismanagement Project – they’ve run out of personal data to lose, so this is a good way for them to generate some more!

  • Mike Butcher

    Dungeekin – Great post btw, ” Data Losss Services PLC” . LOL.

  • Lach

    I find the slow infringement of civil liberties incredibly worrying, and this latest plan crosses right over the line into ‘Big Brother’ territory.

    Please keep us posted any activities, and rallies, as I for one, am interested in participating in any peaceful activities opposing this attack on MY freedom and MY privacy.

    • PJ Brunet

      If you want privacy, use my encoder/decoder, here’s a free sample so you can see how easy this is:

      627vtpz081f ! mzze; 5w! dxzxi! 57d1d9pn52 u71sv44pp9 sd

      • Gwylim Ashley

        And what’s to stop anyone else from using the decoder to decode your messages? Cryptography is useless without keys.

    • Dawson

      I’m with Lach on this one, please keep us informed of any peaceful rallies/protests as this is something I would like to attend.

  • Nicholas Butler

    An interesting side note here is that Tom was considering moving his Parliamentary office to using Gmail. When I asked him about auditing and log management of internal mails his response was thus:

  • Kevin & Ewan

    Count us in Mike – anything we can do let us know

  • Vero Pepperrell

    They’ve gone mad. Plain and simple. Whether technical, social or logistical, not one aspect of this project is viable.

    Count me in too, Mike.

  • Wille

    This reminds me of an expression I once heard: “All ideologies are basically variations on human livestock management”.

    As opposed to Dungeekin – I don’t think it is a big conpiracy, rather a jumble of unfortunate circumstances:
    Groupthink among MP’s afraid to step out of line and face the wrath of the party whip, MP’s being fed proposals they do not understand from bureaucrats (or “civil servants”) looking to expand their personal fiefdoms. Those same bureaucrats wining and dining with lobbyists from various different special interest groups and so on and so forth.

    It is basically a large jumble of ignorance, corruption and ambition in an unfortunate mix that ends up like an episode of “Yes, Minister”, but without any of the humour.

  • Gareth

    On a related note you might be interested in Rewired State – It’s a hackday style event aimed squarely at teaching government about computers.

  • Nick Bell

    Great post @mbites online petition is available here

    • harvey

      more people need to sign this, if at least only to let them know we’re aware and opposed. how come no major politician or political party opposed to this; lib dems, green party, respect party etc ?

  • Andrew Mulvenna

    The implication for web-based business systems such as Pearl who transmit confidential business data via web browsers is not clear and its if not accommodated, adoption of new web-based technology will be reduced.

    Gartner forecast 70%+ business will transition to web-based systems this year. Poorly analysed legislation cannot be allow to limit this growth.

    And during a recession… talk about timing!

    Web-systems like Pearl have been seen time and again to reduce overheads and improve business operations enabling business growth. Check our case studies.

    If the government wants to enable business to grow, particularly SMEs, policies should support innovation – see China’s $12 billion investment in network or France’s fibre broadband capabilities.

    The UK is being left behind – our leaders MUST address these differences


  • Rob Hudson

    I’m in.

  • Brittisk parlamentariker: “Vi vill övervaka allt, men inte bli det själva” « Ministry of Truth

    […] Brittisk parlamentariker: “Vi vill övervaka allt, men inte bli det själva” januari 9, 2009 Posted by Wille in Brittisk politik, Rättssäkerhet, Storebror. trackback Storbritannien vill som bekant ta övervakningen till nya höjder – kontrollera vilka webbplatser so…. […]

  • PaulieA

    whilst not suggesting this is a good use of money and resource, I do think govts around the world have been doing this for ages so not sure why people are acted so shocked

  • Josh Russell

    how will they do webmail such as hotmail or gmail? or shouldn’t i have made them aware of that :)

  • Wille

    PaulieA: They might have tried it before, but never before have they had the technological means to do it on such a large, pervasive scale. Now they do.

  • Dougie

    If we all add “terror bomb plot” to the subject line of ALL email the Gov’t snoops will be swamped with data overload. They won’t have enough time left in the Universe to analyse EVERY email and their project will fail.

  • Dungeekin


    Viewed in isolation, I would agree that it looks like “a jumble of unfortunate circumstances”.

    However, when one looks at the larger picture, in the context of the legislation already implemented or in the pipeline by the Brown Regime, you see something very different.


    The creation of a ‘Rapid Rebuttal Unit’, led by Derek Draper, to astroturf and kill off negative stories about the Labour Party in the Blogosphere;

    The intent of the Intelligence and Security Committee to press ministers to introduce legislation that would prevent news outlets from reporting stories deemed by the Governmnent to be against the interests of national security;

    The arrest of a member of Her Majesty’s Opposition, Damian Green, for doing his job and holding the Government to account:

    A DNA Database you can’t get off, and a CCTV camera for every 14 citizens;

    Plans to capture ‘communications endpoint data’ whether or not you’re suspected of an offence.

    Now put this announcement into the context of the above – does this sound like the UK, or North Korea?


  • Tim Panton

    Last time the Govt tried to do something this dumb was when they tried to set up a central repository of encryption keys.

    It got killed because the financial and legal burden of running it was painstakingly explained to them.

    That’s the way to kill this – let the politicians run the freedom angle – techies and businesses should talk about what they know best.

    Here’s a starter – lets make ‘positive’ comments such as: “it should include a right to recompense individuals if their information is leaked – no crown immunities either.”

  • Dan Field

    Complete farce as usual.

    The data will not help catch criminals and it won’t help catch any terrorist… all it does is add additional costs to an already low margin business and of course massively infringe on our our privacy.

    Do they actually know how much data (And cost) this will involve? Keeping a record of every email sent to and from a UK account, including the spam? For one of our customers alone this amounts to 35,000 emails/day.

    Their are so many ways around this (For the criminals and terrorists)… it won’t for example include small ISPs, it won’t be able to cover webmail only services that are not based in the UK, it won’t be able to cover all other forms of communication (IM, In game chat, SSL communications, etc, etc).

    What use are the headers in crime fighting anyway?

    So they know that criminal A sent an email to criminal B at 8:40 in the morning… depending on what they call “headers” they may also know the subject of the message.

    They will also know that criminal A was sent 14 viagra emails, 5 penis enlargement emails and 3 bust enlargement emails… oh, and that he emailed a few of his (none-criminal) friends and relatives – who are also now being monitored too.

    Whats interesting is that any government body will also be able to access this vast database of private information… remember the local council using terrorism laws to spy on a family who they thought lived outside a school catchment area?

    Absolute farce and a massive invasion of privacy.

    I’m with you on this one Mike!

  • Emc2

    Pardon my naivety, but can they actually monitor our email traffic if it goes through an encrypted connection (which is the case with most email providers these days), or even better if we encrypt our messages with PGP? Clearly this is an outrageous proposal, but surely we have means to elude government control, right?

    Needless to say though, it breaks my tech-savvy heart that it must come down to this.

    • Marcus Povey

      This is lunacy, but hardly surprising.

      My fear is that many people will still be stuck in the “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” camp.

      Possibly the best way to stop this is to approach businesses from a corporate confidentiality / due diligence angle – i.e. are they comfortable with having client contacts exposed + will they be prepared to sue the government when that data is exposed?

  • Whitehall Webby

    Count me in. Ludicrous.

  • Mike Butcher

    Tim Panton – I like your thinking: Automatic £10m compensation for personal data leaks; MP email data on public record etc. Let’s make a list!

  • More Insane Government Internet Security Proposals « Urban Horizon

    […] a coffee (or green tea, whichever works for you) and read Mike Butchers important post about digital privacy and the march of yet another stupid government agenda on trying to control / […]

  • PJ Brunet

    No worries, use my encoder/decoder, works on Myspace, Facebook, email, and will probably work on Twitter too.

    kcw0uz9lwv9 t9pcspcsai k? ck, rw7lh0, h9bcoo-lxd kwv6ut6m. fgte, a1faqie3dx fqnhfcw4-, 0jaxybgn-b x3pxzy5, q; 3

    • Matthew Buxton

      uh yeah that looks super secure.. not

  • Roger Lancefield

    I will certainly attend the rally. I’ve no idea about what kind of work and preparation goes in to such events, but please add me to any “planning & preparation” mailing list:

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