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Back in March, we expressed our dismay about the government’s apparent determination to push through the Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB) before the summer (The IPB takes a step closer to being law). The government seems determined to do this at all costs and while there is a possibility that it will be delayed until after the summer recess due to other parliamentary business, it now looks certain to become law within weeks.

Some adjustments have been made to the Bill since March but, in our view, they are too few and do not go anywhere near far enough. At that time, we did have some hope that an alliance of Labour and the SNP would reject the Bill in it’s current form and force much greater scrutiny and the emergence of legislation that would be, as ISPA put it, clear and workable’.

The current IPB is not clear or workable by any stretch of the imagination. To our dismay, following its third reading, Labour has now lent its support to the Bill, which passed in the Commons with a majority of 444 to 69; the SNP, Liberal Democrats, and Green Party voted against it.

Home Secretary Theresa May MP, said that the Bill had received ‘unprecedented levels of scrutiny’. We’re not at all convinced by this statement; the Public Committee that has been scrutinising the IPB is made up of 20 MPs, none of whom, as far as we are aware, are experts in the Internet or security. Consultation with industry has been scant at best. The concern for MPs is perhaps that the industry will come up with all sorts of objections (as it already has, quite independently) and slow the Bill’s passage down.

By the way, the committee is made up of 12 Conservatives, six Labour and two SNP members of parliament, so assuming that these MPs stick to the positions of their parties, the Bill was always going to sail through. Speaking before the vote last week, the Home Secretary thanked the Opposition for their support and work on the Bill – as well she might now that they are supporting the Bill.

Labour, for their part – we can only assume – feels it must support the Bill or otherwise be seen to be delaying legislation that would be important in preventing terrorism, despite its own reservations which Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham MP expressed last week.

In particular Burnham said that more work needed to be done around ICRs (Internet Connection Records), and that it would be useful to have a single, clear definition of ICRs in one place in the Bill. Too right it would. As a Member of the Public Committee, Gavin Newlands MP pointed out that as yet the industry does not know what ICRs are, and nor does the government. This is in spite of the industry indicating that it would be more than happy to work with the government to help implement ICRs – that’s if we had any idea what they will require us to record.

Newlands also quoted from an ISPA briefing paper on the Bill and said that the wide-ranging powers of the Bill were intrusive and needed to be properly defined. We could not agree more with this view. We have watched the progression of the IPB carefully and we feel it needs much more scrutiny and input from the industry. Like ISPA, we believe that it is important for the government to bring forward new legislation but the current Bill is still a long way from being clear or fair.

Another issue that was raised last week by Gavin Newlands, is the cost impact that keeping ICRs is going to have on ISPs; it is estimated this could be anywhere between £1 billion and £3 billion. We’ve argued in the past that it is unfair that ISPs should have to shoulder the burden of this cost and that the likely outcome is that the extra costs will be passed on to the consumer. But until we know what an ICR actually is, we have no hope of calculating what the cost is likely to be.

In summary, this is a Bill that the government seems to be pushing through quickly for political as well as practical reasons; has not been properly and thoroughly thought-out, lacks clear guidance and definition; and will almost certainly lead to an increase in costs for customers. In an economy that is trying to embrace higher-speed broadband connections and the undoubted benefits that this will bring, this seems to be a step in the wrong direction.

While we understand, appreciate and support the need for new legislation that will help the authorities to tighten the net on individuals or groups who may be planning atrocities or acts of terrorism, we don’t believe that the IPB in its current form will be workable or effective. Hurrying it through will simply mean that we have to go back to the drawing board as soon as the Bill’s weaknesses are exposed.

What do you think?

Is the IPB workable in its current form? Or will it simply need to be replaced again within a few months? Is the government right to push it through, or should they hold back, consult the industry more and try to get it right? Are you concerned about the impact it might have on you as an ISP or as a partner of comms providers? Please leave your thoughts below.

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