LONDON (Reuters) - Deputy prime minister on Thursday ruled out plans to allow police and spy agencies access to details of people’s Internet use, dubbed a “snoopers charter”, threatening division in the coalition government over security and civil liberties.
Senior police and security chiefs argue that unless they are given new powers to monitor online activities, militants and crooks will exploit advances in communication technology such as Facebook and Skype.
Critics say the plans, closely watched by other countries facing the same dilemma, represent an attempt to secure the West’s most far-reaching surveillance powers and are a gross infringement of privacy.
Nick Clegg, leader of the centre-left Lib Dems, the junior partner in the coalition government, said the proposed Communications Data Bill, which had been expected before parliament next month, would now “not happen”.
“I‘m afraid I think that it is not necessarily workable nor proportionate,” said Clegg, who newspapers reported had been coming under pressure from activists within his own party, with its traditional focus on civil liberty.
His opposition will anger some senior figures in Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party, not least Home Secretary Theresa May who has been a vociferous advocate of the new powers which she argues is vital.
It also comes with the Conservatives, traditionally viewed as strong supporters of law and order, and Lib Dems appeared at odds over attempts to deport Abu Qatada, a radical Islamist cleric deemed a national security risk.
“NOT GOING TO HAPPEN”
“What people have dubbed the snoopers’ charter ... that’s not going to happen,” Clegg said on his weekly phone-in on the LBC radio station.
“The idea that the government pass a law which means that there would be a record kept of every website you visit, who you communicate with on social media sites, that’s not going to happen, it’s certainly not going to happen with Lib Dems in government.”
A spokesman for Cameron said police and security agencies had to be able respond to technological change and discussions would continue as progress on the issue was important.
Currently, British mobile and landline telephone providers must retain records for 12 months, in line with an EU directive.
Requests by authorities for details of a person’s phone contacts can be approved by a senior police or intelligence officer without the need for a warrant.
The proposals would have expanded these powers to force the retention of data about online activities, such as which web sites individuals looked at and who they were talking to on social networks, although the authorities insisted they were not interested in the actual content.
Senior counter-terrorism and spy figures have warned their work will suffer unless action is taken.
On Wednesday, Charles Farr, Director General of Britain’s Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, said advances in communications was making “terrorism easier to conduct and safer for terrorists”.
“Legislation and some degree of technology is required to enable us to level the playing field,” he said.
Editing by Toby Chopra