Can you expect human rights online?

New law is designed to protect fundamental freedoms. But will it make a difference to your electronic privacy?

The Human Rights Act is expected to bring new legal standards for citizens in Britain, but human rights experts fear that its impact may not be felt in cyberspace.

The British government's controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act, which increases official powers to monitor Internet citizens, is likely to produce an online big brother state, say critics.

"Rather than respecting human rights, the government is moving towards a very intrusive environment," says Yaman Akdeniz, director of Cyber Rights and Cyber Liberties. Akdeniz suggests that the government was keen to rush the RIP Act through Parliament so that it would not appear more controversial. "The government did everything possible to make sure they passed RIP before the HRA came into force, despite many experts saying that the two laws weren't compatible."

The Human Rights Act, which incorporates the European convention on human rights into British law, establishes a number of key rights designed to protect individuals from abuses of power that might endanger their life, equality and freedom. Although one of these rights is designed to protect a citizen's privacy, experts say that Internet users have never been so threatened by government surveillance and invasion.

"We want to look at how intrusive it will be," says a spokeswoman from International human rights watchdog Liberty. "There are areas where it may need to be challenged."

The government's RIP Act, enacted in July, gives law enforcers power to intercept communications via devices to be installed at ISPs and to imprison those who fail to hand over the keys to encrypted messages. These measures echo widely denounced cybersurveillance laws introduced in Russia under an act known as Sorm. The government also decided Tuesday to allow employers to spy on the Internet activities of staff without their consent. The situation, say privacy campaigners, can only lead to a contradiction to the objectives of the Human Rights Acts.

When the RIP Act passed through parliament in the UK MPs had to sign a statement, stating that the act complies with the European Convention on Human Rights. Human rights groups nevertheless believe that the Act still has the potential to contravene the convention. "A lot depends on how it is implemented," says the Liberty spokeswoman. "It will be up to the relevant authorities to make sure their actions are compatible."

A Home Office spokeswoman argues that the RIP Act's Code of Practice document provides adequate guidance for those implementing the Act, and says that the whole point of the Act is to protect another fundamental right -- the right not to be victimised by crime. "There has to be a balance. That is the whole point of the Human Rights Act," she says.

Thanks to the Human Rights Act it will be possible for the RIP to be challenged in a UK court by someone who feels that their right to privacy has been denied. It will then be up to a judge to decide whether there is conflict.

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