London Calling: Will 10 Downing Street Be Listening?

ukBy Jeff Bess

As the debate over the appropriate extent of – and necessary limits to – government surveillance rages on in the United States, other nations are looking to expand their own powers to monitor the electronic communications of their citizenry. Chief among these is the United Kingdom, whose parliament is currently considering passage of the so-called “Investigatory Powers Bill,” which would authorize a whole host of new tactics for monitoring citizens’ Internet use and would also require compliance from the large Internet companies that possess troves of user data.

The Investigatory Powers Bill is still in draft form and subject to much more parliamentary wrangling before it becomes law. UK Home Secretary Theresa May, who would be charged in part with overseeing the implementation of the bill, insists that the proposed legislation would not be used to ban encryption or survey the population en masse. Other UK government officials argue that the bill is essential to ensuring national security as international terrorist networks evolve to exploit the Internet. Observers like former high-ranking NSA official William Binney have raised serious concerns that the bill would create totalitarianism, not effectively protect the citizens of the United Kingdom, and may even result in mistaken “loss of life.” On the international stage, leading experts from the United Nations suggest that the Investigative Powers Bill would give the UK intelligence community power to “ultimately stifle fundamental freedoms.” Experts critical of surveillance powers, regardless of affiliation, argue that growing domestic and international surveillance regimes risk overbroad retention of data and threaten the future of free, dissenting political speech that is essential to the health of a democratic society.

A number of United States-based Internet and technology firms have expressed serious concerns about the bill’s reach and impact on their users. Technology firms’ resistance to expanded surveillance powers mirrors some of the same companies’ ardent opposition to domestic surveillance in the United States. Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo have teamed up to oppose the Investigative Powers Bill. These firms’ concerns echo many others’ about enhanced surveillance authority and the trust, security, and privacy of their users. The fact that these firms strongly advocate against surveillance regimes in other advanced nations demonstrates the truly global nature of the Internet and the interconnectedness of domestic intelligence networks.

Ultimately, the fate of the UK Investigatory Powers Bill depends on the advocacy of any single constituency, be it the citizenry, domestic or international Internet and technology firms, or others. For example, the November terrorist attack in Paris led David Cameron to suggest that the Investigatory Powers Bill may be headed for the fast-track. Regardless of what ultimately happens, the willingness of United States Internet and technology companies to combat surveillance policy on an international level goes to show the breadth and intensity of attention legislation like the Investigatory Powers Bill will receive as the international community’s stance on advanced surveillance materializes.

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