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Nick Pickles: 'These kind of controls are simply not compatible with British democracy'
Nick Pickles: 'These kind of controls are simply not compatible with British democracy'

We have to take a stand against plans to record all our emails and web activity.

By Nick Pickles

Website blacklists, storage of all your emails by intelligence services and routine monitoring of your internet connection may sound like something from a science fiction novel – or an authoritarian regime – but the truth may be stranger than fiction for Britain in 2012.

Perhaps this is what China meant when state media praised Britain's 'new attitude' towards the internet at the end of 2011.


Today Big Brother Watch's website has been replaced by a shut-down message. We've voluntarily joined many US organisations including Wikipedia and Reddit who have gone off-line to defend freedom online. Like many UK websites, companies and individuals, some of the services we use online pass through America and the proposed laws currently being discussed in Congress would absolutely impact on our work.

The US legislation – namely the PROTECT IP Act (Pipa) and Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa) – as it stands would mandate the same kind of internet regulation and control currently in place in China, Russia and Iran. As highlighted by the US government's own Cybersecurity Co-ordinator and Office of Science and Technology, the laws would reduce freedom of expression, increase cyber security risk and undermine the dynamic, global internet.

The US is not alone in this field. Already this year India has moved to introduce strict controls on cyber cafes, recording anyone who uses a public computer, while Belarus has made it illegal to view foreign websites. In 2011 China and Russia led calls for the UN to endorse state-sanctioned internet censorship, and continue in their efforts to deny democracy and freedom.

Let us make clear at the earliest possible opportunity that these kind of controls are simply not compatible with British democracy. Such regulation would carry a huge economic cost, mark the death of privacy online and will see Britain adopting the same kind of internet regulation as China or Iran.

While the foreign secretary has made clear that "this government rejects censorship and surveillance that undermines people's rights to express themselves, organise or communicate freely" there are discussions underway which do not share this commitment to freedom and privacy.

Proposals being discussed by officials and lobbyists in Westminster right now that would see wholesale recording of all our email and web activity, a government blacklist of legal websites and a legal duty for internet providers to monitor our online activity down to the last keystroke.

The internet is the basis of a digital economy and a digital society, and it is not for the government to prescribe that legal content cannot be viewed here, nor for legal and law-abiding activity to be recorded at all times. Such surveillance echoes the very worst of authoritarian regimes and thought police. Where content is illegal, it is the role of the police to investigate and take action – it is naive and dangerous to assume that a bureaucratic blacklist is a panacea.

Greater regulation of the internet – let alone the authoritarian options being considered - will drive digital businesses from the UK and cost jobs, and do little to tackle the serious problems that do exist online.

They will also do little to combat piracy. As today's Financial Times recognises, the business models of many content providers are directly contributing to piracy by restricting the ways consumers can access legal content. Piracy has filled a vacuum created by industry. More regulation is not the way to foster innovation.

The coming year could become a concerted takeover of our internet access and an unprecedented attack on freedom of speech online. The means to achieve this would be the unqualified end of privacy online, for the only way to be sure no infringements or illegal activities are being committed, every email, web page and file downloaded would need to be monitored and logged.

In the coming year, let it not be for this government to abandon freedom online and let all of us defend our right to free and private communication. The greatest technical advances of our lives lie ahead and short-sighted and ill thought out regulation will hurt us all.

Nick Pickles is director of civil liberties and privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. A candidate in the 2010 general election, Nick stood against Yvette Cooper, achieving a 12.5% swing to the Conservatives. He is a leading commentator on a wide variety of issues including digital privacy and web-blocking, CCTV, civil liberties and privacy.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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