May 11, 2012 - Updated on January 20, 2016

Open letter to Members of Parliament on Internet surveillance

House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA

Paris, 10 May 2012

Dear Members of Parliament,

Bill on the surveillance of electronic and telephone communications

Reporters Without Borders, an organization that defends freedom of information, wishes to inform you of its profound concern at the Communications Capabilities Development Programme, a government bill aimed at extending the surveillance of the electronic and telephone communications of British citizens.

In her annual statement to parliament on 9 May, Her Majesty the Queen confirmed the intention of Prime Minister David Cameron’s government to introduce this bill, which in our view is disproportionate, dangerous and counter-productive.

We understand the government’s desire to improve the effectiveness of its fight against terrorism and organised crime and to adapt its methods to the latest developments in technology. Nevertheless, we are deeply concerned that the enactment of this bill could undermine individual freedoms and potentially lead to widespread abuse.

The right of the intelligence services to access, in real time and without prior authorisation, details of telephone calls, text messages, emails, private messages exchanged through social networks and websites visited would be a serious breach of the individual’s right to privacy.

The United Kingdom, the home of Habeas Corpus, should not be supporting surveillance methods that are akin to those used by the most repressive countries such as China, Iran and Belarus.

The creation of such a system would turn Internet and telephone service providers into auxiliaries of the police. Besides being debatable in principle, the notion also faces serious legal, technical and financial obstacles. Moreover, it would contravene international conventions ratified by the United Kingdom.

We would remind you of the conclusions of the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, who expressed concern in his report in June 2011 at the propensity of some states “to increase their power to monitor Internet users’ activities and content of communication without providing sufficient guarantees against abuse” and the lack of “data protection laws in many states stipulating who is allowed to access personal data, what it can be used for, how it should be stored, and for how long”. Mr La Rue emphasises that “the right to privacy can be subject to restrictions or limitations under certain exceptional circumstances” but not as a matter of routine.

Putting all citizens under surveillance could also be counter-productive by providing real criminals with a strong incentive to acquire readily available anonymisation tools.

Finally, we should like to obtain clarification from you on a number of important questions:
• On what criteria and in what circumstances would personal data be examined?
• Who would be allowed access to such data, and how long would it be kept and remain available to the intelligence services?
• What safeguards would be available to citizens to protect themselves from abuses?
• What would be the penalties for Internet and telephone service providers that fail to provide such data?

In a democracy, surveillance of communications can only be undertaken in a limited and supervised manner, under the control of the law. The providers of technical services have no powers to carry out this process and any general system of surveillance must be rejected at all costs. Reporters Without Borders therefore urges you to oppose this bill, which is contrary to the international obligations of the United Kingdom and has dangerous implications for the basic freedoms of your fellow citizens.

Thank you for your attention in this matter.

Yours sincerely,

Olivier Basille
Director, Reporters Without Borders