House of Lords can make or break UK e-commerce
As the Regulation of Interceptory Powers (RIP) Bill enters the House of Lords committee stage next week, we have one last chance to stop the Bill damaging the UK's future as an centre for e-commerce.
Let's be clear: for business, this is not a civil liberties issue - it's about the bread and butter of making profit from Internet-enabled operations.
The Bill requires Internet service providers (ISPs) to comply with Web-tapping orders. That is only the same as the requirement on telecoms providers in the offline economy, says the Government.
But it's not the same. In the first place, there is no guarantee that an ISP's tangible costs will be covered under proposed compensation arrangements - let alone the intangible costs in terms of time, staffing and international competitiveness. In any case, many ISPs feel the Government has underestimated the costs. And the Bill's definition of an ISP remains wide: if your company runs a Web server it could be defined as such. If you outsource an application to an application service provider, so could they.
Secondly, by placing IT professionals under the obligation to hand over decryption keys to coded messages without informing their employer, the Bill creates a human trapdoor for commercially sensitive detail. How many times a day do lawyers and judges have to deal with "evidence gone missing" in the normal course of the judicial process? How can we be certain that data decoded for the eyes of the UK's cybercops will remain for their eyes only?
Third, there is the whole question of business confidence. Why has Eire passed a law directly contrary to the RIP Bill? Because Eire is positioning itself as an e-commerce and high-technology hub for western Europe. Those finance houses and household manufacturing names that have been quietly threatening to move offshore if the Bill becomes law now have a perfect destination.
Major global businesses in the UK fear - perhaps wrongly - a scenario whereby Britain's draconian law on forced decryption could lead to sensitive corporate data finding its way into law enforcement arena in the US. The weight of individual US corporations in the Federal political process means that such data could be used to the advantage of US-based competitors, they fear.
Ministers will call that paranoia - but it could be enough to force some major firms to make good their threats to conduct secure transactions offshore. They may do it quietly - and on grounds of cost or "IT reorganisation" - but watch out for an exodus if the Bill is passed.
All this poses the Lords with a dilemma next week: to tweak the Bill or torpedo it entirely. Optimism of the will suggests they should engage in a last-ditch attempt to put major new safeguards into the Bill, while lobbying hard with the Treasury, where the only power to gainsay Jack Straw is to be found.
Pessimism of the intellect, however, says this has been tried before. Regrettably, the best thing the House of Lords could do for UK e-commerce in the next few days is to torpedo the Bill completely and ask Jack Straw to start again.