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Q&A: Plans for government monitoring of internet, phones

Details on new legislation that would give the government far wider reach in monitoring phone and in

Q. What is being proposed?
Legislation requiring internet companies to install hardware that would allow the government to monitor internet and mobile activity for any person in the UK. The legislation would give the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which works with the National Security Agency in the United States, the authority to monitor activity without securing a warrant. GCHQ, first named as such in 1946, has its main headquarters in Cheltenham and small offices in Cornwall and Yorkshire.

Q. How would it be implemented in practice?
The hardware would give the government on demand access to websites visited, emails and text messages sent and phone calls made by anyone in the UK. The legislation would not give the government the authority to access content from emails, text messages or phone calls. Police and intelligence officers would have access to such information.

Q. What came of previous attempts to widen the scope of internet and phone monitoring?
In 2006, Labour under Tony Blair tried to pass a measure similar to the one proposed now, but faced stiff opposition from civil liberties groups, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Labour ultimately withdrew the measure.

Q. How does the proposed legislation differ from the law as it stands at the moment?
At issue is whether the government should be required to obtain a warrant to monitor internet and phone activity. Currently, the government must get a warrant - which can sometimes be a lengthy process - in order to track such activity or correspondences. Under the new legislation, GCHQ could assume tracking - of any UK activity - instantly and without a warrant. However, even if the new legislation is approved, the government would still need a warrant in order to access the content of phone or internet activity.

Q. What do the proponents say?
Such legislation is essential for combating crime, cracking down on terrorism networks and stopping paedophile networks. The Home Office defends the proposed legislation by noting that it will not allow police or intelligence officers to access content.

The Home Office said, in a statement:

It is vital that police and security services are able to obtain communications data in certain circumstances to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public. We need to take action to maintain the continued availability of communications data as technology changes.

Communications data includes time, duration and dialling numbers of a phone call, or an email address. It does not include the content of any phone call or email and it is not the intention of Government to make changes to the existing legal basis for the interception of communications.

Q. What do the opponents say?
The measures are authoritarian and akin to internet censorship in China or Iran.

Benjamin Ramm, editor of the Liberal magazine, said:

Liberal Democrat activists will be furious to learn of these plans, especially as they campaigned tirelessly against New Labour's authoritarianism. It is difficult to believe, even after so many broken election pledges, that the party would violate one of its fundamental philosophical tenets. What is the purpose of a Liberal party if it's not going to be liberal?

David Davis, former Conservative shadow home secretary, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

What is proposed is completely unfettered access to every single communication you make. This argument it doesn't cover content - it doesn't cover content for telephone calls, but your web address is content.

I'm afraid what this does is makes it 60m times worse... I'm afraid it is a very, very big widening of powers, which I'm afraid will be very much resented by many, many citizens who do not like the idea.

Q. Is it likely to become law?
Any legislation announced in the Queen's Speech would have to pass the Commons and the Lords. If 2006 is any indication, the legislation may face significant hurdles getting through the Commons and Lords.