The UK government’s war on internet freedom

Censorship and surveillance proposals would put the UK’s approach to internet freedom on par with authoritarian regimes.

David Cameron's government is considering a series of laws that would dramatically restrict online privacy [EPA]

San Francisco, CA – Last summer in the wake of the London riots, British Prime Minister David Cameron insisted that the government should have the power to censor social media and “stop [alleged rioters] from communicating via these websites”. But after Cameron’s plan was widely compared to the tactics of former Egypt President Hosni Mubarak – not to mention the same social media services were instrumental in helping organise post-riot cleanup – the proposal never materialised.

Unfortunately, Cameron’s declaration that the “free flow of information” can sometimes be a problem, then an aberration, seems to have turned into a pillar of the UK government’s 2012 agenda. Despite declaring early on in his term that internet freedom should be respected “in Tahrir Square as much as Trafalgar Square”, his government is now considering a series of laws that would dramatically restrict online privacy and freedom of speech.

Mass surveillance plan

The most controversial plan, strongly defended by Cameron last week, would allow the government to monitor every email, text message and phone call flowing throughout the country. Internet service providers (ISPs) would be forced to install hardware that would give law enforcement real time, on-demand access to every internet user’s IP address, email address books, when and to whom emails are sent and how frequently – as well as the same type of data for phone calls and text messages.

Probing social media’s role in the UK riots

Because many popular services – like Google and Facebook – encrypt the transmission of user data, the government also would force social media sites and other online service providers to comply with any data request. Currently, according to their most recent Transparency Report, Google refused to comply with 37 per cent of user data requests they received from UK authorities in the first six months of 2011, because they didn’t comport with “the spirit or letter of the law”, likely indicating overly broad requests or that the authorities provided no reasonable suspicion of a crime occurred. Under the new proposal, Google could not refuse any requests – regardless of their validity – and would be forced to hand over all data.

Cameron said his proposal was meant “to keep our country safe from serious and organised crime and also from terrorist threats that… that we still face in this country”. But as Privacy International explained: “In a terrorism investigation, the police will already have access to all the data they could want. This is about other investigations.” The information gathered in this new programme would be available to local law enforcement for use in any investigation and would be available without any judicial oversight.


Parliament has also targeted Google and Facebook on the censorship front in recent weeks. As the Guardian reported, “A cross-party committee of MPs and peers has urged the government to consider introducing legislation that would force Google to censor its search results to block material that a court has found to be in breach of someone’s privacy.” By “privacy”, the committee meant so-called “super-injunctions” – censorship orders, usually taken out by celebrities or wealthy individuals, which ban a publisher from mentioning a topic or even the injunction.

In the last year, users on Twitter and Google have broken several super-injunctions. For example, a Scottish oil company obtained a super-injunction against Greenpeace to keep photographs of the environmental group’s protest off social media sites. Within hours, unaffiliated users posted hundreds of the pictures, effectively nullifying the order. If the recommendation by the MPs were followed, Google, Facebook and Twitter would have to proactively monitor and remove such results from their webpages.  

Another bill, known as the Online Safety Act, would force ISPs and mobile network providers to automatically block porn by default. As the Daily Tech reported, “In order to gain access to pornographic material, a user that is over 18 years of age must call their provider and ask for it directly.” And if the site doesn’t build in its own age verification policy, users over 18 could still be denied access even if they’ve opted in.

The Prime Minister is also reportedly considering rules requiring websites playing music videos to install age verification systems, because some music videos produced by popular artists like Rihanna, Beyoncé and Madonna are allegedly “highly suggestive”.

And if the government gets its way with its new copyright proposal, the only music video sites users would able to access at all would be those sanctioned by record-companies. Despite the enormous backlash over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the US, the UK government is reportedly trying to broker a backroom deal between ISPs and content companies in which search engines would start “voluntarily” censoring sites accused of copyright infringement. The deal would force search engines to blacklist entire websites from search results merely upon an allegation of infringement, and artificially promote “approved” websites.

Existing laws

Unfortunately, laws already on the books in the UK are notorious for restricting free speech as well. Their strict libel laws attract “libel tourism”, where citizens from other countries go to sue for libel with cases they could never sue for in their home country. Just recently, one man was forced to pay 90,000 pounds (plus costs) because of two tweets that were seen by an estimated 65 people in England and Wales.

Inside Story – The UK ‘snooping’ plan: Security vs privacy

Libel cases in the UK cost an average of 140 times of those in the rest of Europe, according to a Cambridge University study, so people often settle out of fear of extraordinary cost of defence, even if innocent. The UN Committee on Human Rights warned that the current system “served to discourage critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest, adversely affecting the ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work”. Thankfully, the government has indicated they wish to reform the law and The Hindu reported that a Defamation Bill may be announced this year.

A UK judge recently sentenced a 21-year-old college student to 56 days in jail for a series of “racially offensive comments” written in series of tweets referring to a popular football player. The judge in the case noted, the comments were “vile and abhorrent”, but “In my view, there is no alternative to an immediate prison sentence.” The case, which made national and international headlines surely gave the racist remarks a far higher audience than if they had been ignored.

Beyond the domestic free speech issues, Britain is home to many of the companies exporting high tech surveillance equipment to authoritarian countries in the Middle East, where it is used to track journalists and democratic activists. The technology, which can be used to monitor a country’s emails and phone calls, is similar to what the UK government will have to install to implement its own mass surveillance programme.

The British government claims it is “actively looking at this issue” and “working within the EU to introduce new controls on surveillance”, but given its domestic censorship and surveillance proposals, maybe they should also exert some control at home as well.

Trevor Timm is an activist and writer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Follow him on Twitter: @WLLegal