Euro-IR Project Main Index

The APC European Internet Rights Project

Country Report — United Kingdom

By Paul Mobbs

The use of the Internet in the UK has expanded massively since 1996. Currently 16 to 18 million adults in the UK (25% to 30% of the population) have access to the Internet1 - 59% in the home, 34% at work and 7% via educational establishments. The growth of computer usage in the home, originally driven by computer games, has now taken on a new dimension with the development of the Internet.

The Labour government, elected in May 1997, has sought to expand the use of the Internet by the UK population. Recently there have been a number of policy initiatives by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI)2, the Department of Education and Employment (DfEE)3, and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DfCMS)4, in relation to the use of the Internet by business and local government. There have also been initiatives, funded by the UK Treasury Department, to get Internet access through all schools and libraries. But in parallel with this emphasis on providing access to the Internet, there has been a policy agenda developed through the Home Office of increasing the level of state surveillance of the public's activities on the Internet.

The two driving forces behind the expansion of the Internet in the UK are e-commerce and entertainment. The original boom in the popularity of the Internet during 1999 flopped during 2000. But the UK businesses and the government are still pressing ahead with the development of e-commerce. The new Electronic Communications Act 2000 creates trusted bodies for the registration of digital signatures, and the provision of cryptography services, to assist the use of e-commerce. During 2000 a joint review of the policies controlling communications and the media was also launched by the DTI and DfCMS5 (this is partly as a result of reviews of media and community regulation at the European level6)

There is also increasing emphasis within UK government policy on the convergence of different media. New policy on this is currently being developed following the publication of the government's draft policy7. Two significant events during 2000 were the launch of the first low-cost consumer appliances to access the Internet via a TV and phone line (from Bush, £169.99), and the launch of the 'TIVO box' in the UK8 (a new appliance that couples the users viewing of schedules TV and browsing of the Internet).

One aspect of the review of the communications in the UK, driven in part by new European legislation, is the opening up of telecommunications services to greater competition9. Whilst a large part of the UK's telecomms industry is open to competition, the local loop the line between the user and the local telephone exchange is still controlled by British Telecom (BT). The delays by BT in implementing the new broadband ADSL network in the UK have led to criticisms of their control over the local loop. Resolving the impasse in improvement of the local loop is essential in order to develop broadband services, and to gain the full benefits of the use of the Internet for example digital and audio streaming. In any case, the broadband proposals for the UK have technical limitation. Only those within 3km of an exchange will be able to use ADSL services, so at most ADSL will only cover 80% of the UK population. But this will be a far greater level of coverage than is currently achieved by cable TV services.

The one significant impact of the failure to resolve disputes on the local loop has been the delay in developing 'free' Internet access. Low cost access is currently run through a system called 'Surf time'. But this deal requires that the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) pay BT for a large part of the cost of the service. Free email and web services will not be available until ISPs can agree fixed-rate local access for their subscribers.

In March 2000, the Data Protection Act 1998 was commenced10. This implemented the European Directive on data protect. New requirements on those holding and using personal data on the UK population will be phased in between March 2000 and October 2007. This Act supersedes the 1984 Act, and is significant because it extends the controls of the use of personal data to manual records as well as computer databases. The Act does not guarantee privacy, but it seeks to ensure that peoples' personal details are not misused, and that the processing of data does not act against the interests of those identified in the computer records. It also takes account of recent developments in personal and group profiling to control the use of personal data by direct marketing companies.

The one failure of government so far in relation to the development of ICT in the UK is the guarantee of Internet and email access, and a guarantee of 'electronic expression'. As a result of a libel action against Demon Internet at the beginning of 200011, many ISPs removed 'controversial' web sites even though no threat of legal action had been received. Also, whilst there is emphasis on the ability of business to use the Internet, there has been no attempt to provide a clear extension of rights of expression and communication to the Internet. Service providers in the UK are still free to censor or deny use of electronic communications according to their own subjective standards.

As noted earlier, the parallel agenda to developing ICT in the UK has been efforts by the Home Office to restrict certain 'undesirable uses' by the public. The Electronic Communication Act permits the use of cryptography. It also, as a minor section, prohibits government from developing key escrow systems in the UK. However, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act 2000 requires that 'suspected' persons divulge their encryption keys or face prosecution.

The RIP Act also updates the UK's surveillance in intrusive investigations laws12. In particular, it provides the state with powers to monitor all domestic communications. It was revealed in early December 200013 that the UK government, through the security services, is developing a system to monitor the communications data (for example the telephone numbers dialled, the duration of call, the email a person sends email to, and the location of web pages they access) for all UK voice and data communications14. This does not involve storing the content of the communication, just its origins and destinations. This has serious civil liberties implications since, over a period of 7 years for which this data will be kept, the state will be able to map an individuals communications, and their association with others online.

In conclusion, the UK has begun to develop the sort of accessible high-capacity networks necessary to develop high quality public Internet access. However, there are still costs and technology barriers that will, for the next few years, limit access. But a more worrying trend is that as these new networks develop, the British state is developing new hi-tech measures to monitor all use of the new communications media. Concern must also be raised about the lack of any specific rights in relation to the new communications media, in particular the failure of the UK government to guarantee the right to privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of communication via the Internet.

November 2000

1. Source: Fletcher Research's UK Internet Monitor

2. DTI Communications and Information Industries Directorate

3. DfEE's ICT Learning Centres website

4. DfCMS's Internet Inquiry website

5. DCMS/DTI draft policy review paper

6. EC's review documents

7. the Green Paper, Regulating Communications: Approaching Convergence in the Information Age

8. The Guardian, 2nd October, 2000,4273,4070627,00.html

9. See OFTEL's website

10. GreenNet CSIR briefing on Data Protection

11. BBC Online

12. FIPR archives on the RIP Act

13. The Observer, 3rd December 2000,6903,406191,00.html

14. A copy of the proposals are available online

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