Last Updated: Friday, 19 December 2014, 13:25 GMT

Internet Under Surveillance 2004 - United Kingdom

Publisher Reporters Without Borders
Publication Date 2004
Cite as Reporters Without Borders, Internet Under Surveillance 2004 - United Kingdom, 2004, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/46e69199c.html [accessed 21 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
  • Population: 59,068,000
  • Internet users: 25,000,000
  • Average charge for 20 hours of connection: 18 euros
  • DAI*: 0.77
  • Situation**: middling

Britain has followed US efforts to fight cybercrime and terrorism by passing tougher laws than most other European countries, to the detriment of individual liberties. Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil rights group Liberty, called Britons the most monitored people in the Western world.

Britain is one of the world's most online countries, with half the population connected to the Internet, according to official figures (October 2003), though only 3.6 % had broadband, compared with 9.25 % in Sweden and 4.15 % in France (June 2003).

Anti-terrorist law still under fire

The government introduced new measures to monitor the Internet after the 11 September attacks. They included the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act (ATCSA), passed in mid-December 2001, which extended to a year the minimum time for retention of data about ISP customers' online activity. The home office (interior ministry) said it wanted to monitor online financial dealings and private e-mail messages. Police no longer needed to get court permission to act but simply a green light from the home secretary or a top official. The measures sparked outrage and some ISPs said they might move their servers out of the country.

The Internet Service Providers' Association (ISPA) protested against the law again in October 2003, deploring the fact that ISPs, and not the government, had to pay the cost of an anti-terrorist law. Privacy International pointed out in October 2003 that directives on data retention, including the ATCSA, contravened article 8 of the European Declaration on Human Rights.

The Rip Act threatens message privacy

In June 2002, home secretary David Blunkett proposed amending a controversial law passed in June 2000, the "RIP Act" (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act), that allowed the secret services to monitor all online activity in the fight against cybercrime. Blunkett now proposed to allow local authorities (tax and social security offices, municipal services) to access details of people's Internet activity, including their e-mail. This caused such uproar in the media and among civil liberties groups that the government dropped the measure two weeks later.

Blunkett, nicknamed "Big Blunkett" (after "Big Brother") by his enemies, proposed a new amendment to the Rip Act in September 2003. As before, it gave many bodies, including local authorities, the power to gather private data about Internet users. Allowing such institutions access to records of website hosts and ISPs is a serious violation of online message privacy. Such powers belong only to the police as part of investigations and only with court permission. The government has appointed an Interception of Communications Commissioner (Sir Swinton Thomas) to protect citizens from abuses of the Rip Act and ATCSA.

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* The DAI (Digital Access Index) has been devised by the International Telecommunications Union to measure the access of a country's inhabitants to information and communication technology. It ranges from 0 (none at all) to 1 (complete access).

** Assessment of the situation in each country (good, middling, difficult, serious) is based on murders, imprisonment or harassment of cyber-dissidents or journalists, censorship of news sites, existence of independent news sites, existence of independent ISPs and deliberately high connection charges.

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