Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo balk at UK's Investigatory Powers Bill


The Investigatory Powers Bill may only be in draft form at the moment, but the UK government has already come in for criticism for its plans. Today, scores of pieces of written evidence, both for and against the proposals, have been published, including input from the Reform Government Surveillance (RGS) coalition.

Five key members of the coalition are Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo. In their written evidence, the quintet of tech companies express their concerns about the draft bill, seek clarification from the UK government, and issue warnings about the implications of such a bill.

The evidence (document IPB0116) says that any surveillance undertaken by the government need to be "targeted, lawful, proportionate, necessary, jurisdictionally bounded, and transparent". The coalition notes that many other countries are watching to see what the UK does, and whatever form the final Investigatory Powers Bill takes, it could form the framework for countless similar bills around the world.

The group suggests a series of considerations that it believes the government needs to keep in mind:

  • User trust is essential to our ability to continue to innovate and offer our customers products and services, which empower them to achieve more in their personal and professional lives.
  • Governments’ surveillance authorities, even when transparent and enshrined in law, can undermine users’ trust in the security of our products and services.
  • Key elements of whatever legislation is passed by the UK are likely to be replicated by other countries, including with respect to UK citizens’ data.
  • Unilateral imposition of obligations on overseas providers will conflict with legal obligations such providers are subject to in other countries.
  • An increasingly chaotic international legal system will leave companies in the impossible position of deciding whose laws to violate and could fuel data localization efforts.

Among the other points made are concerns about conflicting with laws in other countries. The coalition says that the UK government should not be able to require companies to comply with warrants if it doing so would break laws in other countries. There is concern expressed about encryption, and a clear statement that "we reject any proposals that would require companies to deliberately weaken the security of their products via backdoors, forced decryption, or any other means."

As well as telling the government that companies should not be required to gather and store extra data about their customers, the coalition wants to ensure that there is transparency when the bill is in action. This, the evidence says, would go some way to maintaining the user trust that the bill risks breaking:

The ultimate test we apply to each of the authorities in this Bill is whether they will promote and maintain the trust users place in our technology. Even where these authorities do not apply to overseas providers like our companies, we are concerned that some of the authorities contained in the Bill, as currently drafted, represent a step in the wrong direction. The clearest example is the authority to engage in computer network exploitation, or equipment interference. To the extent this could involve the introduction of risks or vulnerabilities into products or services, it would be a very dangerous precedent to set, and we would urge your Government to reconsider.

The Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill is chaired by Lord Murphy of Torfaen. He said:

The Committee is grateful to the wide range of people and organisations who have taken the time and effort to submit evidence to the inquiry.

We are aware that the short time available to the Committee for its investigation has been a cause of concern for people who have their own concerns and questions about the draft Bill. Our timetable, set by the two Houses, is certainly a challenging one. However, our witnesses’ willingness to work with us to this tight deadline, and the range and quality of the written evidence that has been submitted, is something the Committee acknowledges gratefully. The written evidence, together with that which we have heard in oral evidence sessions, will be vital to our further work.

The full cache of written evidence can be accessed on the UK Parliament website. It includes submissions from companies, individuals, the government, law enforcement agencies, and non-governmental organizations.

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