Government accused of hidden e-commerce agenda

Select committee remain concerned that the government has yet to rid itself of its previous attachment to key escrow

A report on the draft e-commerce bill -- published Wednesday -- has raised concerns that the government's plans for UK e-commerce are being hobbled by a hidden law enforcement agenda.

The latest Select Committee on Trade and Industry report on the re-named e-communications bill, is far kinder on government than the last report. In May the Committee slammed the then e-commerce bill as a "damaging and embarrassing failure" and described the key escrow policy as a "blind alley".

Key escrow -- where e-commerce firms would be forced to lodge decryption keys with a third party -- has been the most controversial e-policy of government to date. Intended to give law enforcers power on the Net, critics argued it would be immensely damaging to the development of e-commerce. Key escrow has been dropped , with both Tony Blair and e-Minister Patricia Hewitt assuring industry the policy is dead and buried.

Despite the high-level assurances the select committee remains unconvinced. "We are concerned that the government has yet to rid itself of its previous attachment to key escrow and related technologies," the report states, calling on the government to make "an unequivocal commitment that key escrow will not be introduced through the back door". Nicholas Bohm, lawyer and member of Online civil liberties organisation CyberRights and CyberLiberties, believes there is reason for concern. "The bill as it now stands is pregnant with possibilities," he said.

Part three of the e-communications bill, heavily criticised for threatening individuals with jail terms if they refused to hand over decryption keys, escaped the Committee's inspection relatively unscathed. While the report questions the urgency with which the proposal is being introduced, it sees nothing to contravene human rights."We have seen nothing that would substantiate some hysterical comment to the effect that the government's proposed new power to require decryption represents a major assault on our rights," the report states.

Civil libertarians lashed out at the statement with Bohm accusing the committee of missing the point. "The government is making a rod for its back. If it starts serving decryption notices there will be a volume of complaints never dreamt of," he said, warning that the government will find itself dragged to the court in Strasbourg over the issue.

The e-communications bill is due to be introduced in parliament during November.

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