UK climbs down on communications access law

After a flood of negative reactions from civil rights groups and opposition political parties, the U.K. government has put on indefinite hold plans to expand the authority of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to a myriad of government departments.

“I recognize there is widespread concern about the current proposals to regulate how public bodies can access phone and Internet records. It’s clear that whilst we want to provide greater security, clarity and regulation to activities that already go on, our plans have been understood as having the opposite effect,” said Home Secretary David Blunkett in a statement Tuesday.

RIPA, which became law two years ago, provides any department covered by the act with the right to obtain the communication records of phone, postal and Internet users, without the need for a court order. RIPA authority has been given to police forces, intelligence services, customs and excise authorities and the Inland Revenue. These bodies may require U.K.-based ISPs (Internet service providers), telecommunications companies and postal operators to hand over detailed information on individuals upon request.

The government, under the department of the Home Office, sought to expand RIPA to seven central government-or “Whitehall”-departments, every local authority in the country and all of the National Health Service (NHS) agencies in Scotland and Northern Ireland beginning Aug. 1.

The amendment to extend the rights of RIPA, which was to have been debated before the House of Commons for 90 minutes on Tuesday, has been withdrawn so that a more detailed discussion can take place over the merits of the proposed law, the Home Office said.

“Despite being in public life, I value my own privacy and understand these sensitivities. The time has come for a much broader public debate about how we effectively regulate modern communications and strike the balance between the privacy of the individual and the need to ensure our laws and society are upheld,” Blunkett said.

The government had previously argued that the RIPA amendment would simply tighten up the controls over powers that existed under the Data Protection Act, though the new law would make it a compulsory regulation rather than voluntary one.

Shortly after the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on Sept. 11, the U.K. government sent a request to all U.K.-based ISPs (Internet service providers) and telecommunication companies asking them to retain all communications-traffic data for a month, a request that was then extended and which the government has sought several times to make permanent and compulsory.