E-bill reverses burden of proof, says expert

e-Minister defends government action on encryption, while privacy-rights expert blasts e-commerce bill.

Newly appointed e-Minister Patricia Hewitt was forced to defend the controversial e-commerce bill Thursday from civil liberties campaigners, who maintain the bill is a threat to basic civil rights.

Speaking at the Scrambling for Safety conference in London, Hewitt tried to reassure critics of the bill that they have nothing to fear from government. She later admitted this was not always true. "In some cases, government action itself is a threat to freedom," Hewitt said. "But it is only action by government and law enforcement that can protect individuals."

Prompted by questions from the floor, Hewitt had to justify the inclusion of law-enforcement clauses in the e-commerce bill, which, she claimed, was a necessary response to the fact "crime has gone electronic and global".

Under government proposals, the police will have the power to demand individuals hand over decryption keys if they are under suspicion. Failure to comply could result in a two year prison sentence, which breaks the rules of the European Convention on Human Rights, according to lawyer and civil liberties campaigner Nicholas Bohm. "The Convention states that individuals have certain rights, such as innocent until proven guilty and the right not to incriminate oneself," he said. "The e-commerce bill reverses the burden of proof."

Alan Duncan, shadow spokesman of Trade and Industry, gave an example of how government proposals could affect the innocent. "If someone who didn't like me sent me encrypted child pornography and tipped off the police, they could come round and demand I hand over decryption keys. As I wouldn't be able to do so, I would be going to prison for two years," he said.

Hewitt, who is an ex-secretary general of Liberty, denied that the proposals reversed the burden of proof but was unable to explain why she had reached that conclusion.

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