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January 05, 2012 | Peter Bradwell

The Foreign Secretary's reply on UK Internet freedom

To coincide with the London Conference on Cyberspace last November, Open Rights Group and nine other Internet freedom advocates, including Cory Doctorow and Index on Censorship, wrote to the Foreign Secretary about censorship and privacy in the UK.

We were concerned that some fine words about international obligations to freedom of expression and privacy were being undermined by the coalition's domestic Internet policies. We highlighted in particular suggestions made in the immediate aftermath of the riots that there should be more powers to block access to social networks, plans for more pervasive powers to surveil and access people’s personal information online, and also concerns that the Government might develop proposals to filter adult and other legal material on UK Internet connections by default.

Below is the full text of the Foreign Secretary's reply (which is also posted here). Overall it reiterates the rhetorical commitment to the principles of freedom of expression and privacy online and the Government's commitment to international human rights conventions. A couple of highlights to pull out now:

1. There is an explicit rejection of default censorship of adult content, and the suggestion that the Government will mandate Internet filters. The Foreign Secretary outlines a policy of 'active choice', saying that 'the position of Claire Perry on default filtering of adult content is not the position of this government.' So it's somewhat positive on the question of filtering and censorship - reasonably good news given this year is likely to see a number of policies developed on how content regulation works. (There's information on Claire Perry MP's inquiry into child protection online here). 

2. The letter is less brilliant and specific on privacy. The line on the need to 'maintain capabilities to investigate crimes and to protect individuals where they are threatened by criminals, terrorism or foreign powers' is a nod towards policies such as the Communications Capabilities Development Programme that are about how to 'preserve communications capabilities'. The concern is that these 'updates' will, in practice, lead to significant encroachments into the privacy of our communications. Stay tuned - this will likely be a big one this year.

3. Regarding the regulation of social networks, the letter states that the Prime Minister did not call for social networks should be closed down in the aftermath of the riots. This is strictly accurate (see column 1053 here). The press seemed to have the impression on the morning of the speech that the Government were closer to the 'turn it off' option - it's good to know that this is off the table.

The Prime Minister did say that they were looking at 'whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.' Perhaps echoing this somewhat, the letter does say 'law enforcement agencies, the network providers and social media organisations are looking at ways they can enhance co-operation to prevent the networks being used for criminal behaviour, in accordance with, and in order to uphold UK law.' It'll be important to make sure that this does not mean, in practice, that informal relationships that fly close to the limits of the law stand in for proper due process and robust oversight.

Overall, the reply is useful and constructive, and outlines pretty clearly some digital rights faultlines - credit is due to the Foreign Secretary and the FCO for taking the time to reply in detail.

Here is the letter in full:

In response to a letter from a number of media freedom groups, Foreign Secretary William Hague outlines the Coalition Government's policy on freedom of expression and the internet.

Response from Foreign Secretary William Hague to an open letter on freedom of expression and the internet:

Thank you for your letter of 1 November about the Coalition Government’s policy on freedom of expression.

This Government rejects censorship and surveillance that undermines people’s rights to express themselves, organise or communicate freely. We are proud to stand up for freedom of expression and privacy. Britain will always be on the side of those aspiring to greater political and economic freedom anywhere in the world, whether this is on or off the internet.

In the UK, we are striving for a model for internet governance where governments, industry and users of the Internet work together. Our obligations under the Human Rights Act, underpinned by our international treaty obligations, are central. As you know, these protect freedom of expression, association and assembly from undue interference from the government or other public bodies. International human rights conventions rightly set very high thresholds for any action by the state to suppress or control the free flow of information. Any action we take will be in accordance with these obligations.

I would like to address some specific issues you raise.

We believe that parents should be provided with wide tools to enable them to voluntarily block harmful and inappropriate content. Active choice is the preferred approach, with parents given a choice as to whether or not to activate parental controls when switching on a new internet enabled device or connecting to a new internet connection for the first time. It is important to distinguish between government encouraging people to make more use of existing protections as a matter of choice, and the government deciding what people can and cannot do online. Our plans do not prevent access to legal material, but seek to make it much clearer that protections exist, and to encourage their use. The position of Claire Perry regarding the default filtering of adult content is not the position of this government.

You referred to the Prime Minister’s statement to Parliament earlier this year in the wake of recent disturbances in the UK. Let me be clear. The Prime Minister did not suggest that social networks should be closed down. The government has not and is not seeking any new powers in this area. We recognise the enormous benefits that social networking brings, not least in the valuable part it played in helping citizens avoid trouble spots and in galvanizing community clean up efforts. Social networking itself was not the root cause of the disturbances, but, as our courts have recognised, did offer an enhanced means of communication to some individuals’ intent on inciting or facilitating widespread criminal behaviour. In light of this our law enforcement agencies, the network providers and social media organisations are looking at ways they can enhance co-operation to prevent the networks being used for criminal behaviour, in accordance with, and in order to uphold UK law.

Finally you raised concerns about powers of surveillance and access to personal information online. It is of course the responsibility of government to maintain capabilities to investigate crimes and to protect individuals where they are threatened by criminals, terrorism or foreign powers. The use of covert surveillance by the authorised government agencies, for example the acquisition of communications data and the interception of communications, is regulated by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA). RIPA’s strict safeguards, including independent oversight, ensure that such surveillance is, and will continue to be, fully consistent with our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

As I outlined at the London Conference on Cyberspace (LCC), the UK’s approach to the future of cyberspace has at its heart a simple proposition: behaviour that is unacceptable in the offline world is also unacceptable online. This emphatically includes the curtailing of human rights. Human rights are universal, and apply with equal force online as they do offline. The UK will continue to take a lead role in ensuing these principles are upheld.

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