Jane Wakefield - ISPs of the world unite!

The e-commerce bill and a pig-headed government

Rather like a naughty schoolboy, confident he will never be caught pulling the limbs off a daddy-long-legs, so the government thought it would get away with pushing through its Net snooping legislation in another form.

Dressing up the bad bits of its bills in a pretty pink frock and ribbons is something the government seems to be getting very good at and, despite Tony Blair's rampant enthusiasm for anything prefixed with an "e", the Net has no exemption from his desire to window-dress. If the Internet tried to creep past the headmasters door it would be called back. "Internet boy, where do you think you are going? Come back immediately, you must be REGULATED."

And while the e-communications bill has been transformed from a dirty urchin into a shiny choirboy of a bill, there is a more menacing bully lurking in the background. It goes by the name of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill and it wants to watch you.

This new entry in the competition to be the worst bill ever in the world will basically be made up of all the things industry didn't like in the Interception of Communications Act (IOCA) and the old e-commerce/e-communications bill, including its controversial Part III. And the government hoped we wouldn't notice what it was up to: Give it a new name and get the Queen to mumble about it in her speech and no-one will ever notice it, the government seems to have thought.

For those who don't remember, the original e-commerce bill was a mess. Which is no surprise given how little the government seems to understand technology. What was surprising was that the government actually listened to the industry and its own select committee's scathing attack on the bill, did a bit of foot-shuffling and head bowing and changed it. Taking out mandatory key escrow -- which would force users to log encryption keys with a trusted third party -- was one of the government's better decisions. But if the industry thought e-commerce would remain free of the chains of law enforcement it was very much mistaken.

To take a bad idea and make it worse requires a special kind of stubbornness, but the government seemed happy to be pigheaded. "OK, if you don't like the idea of leaving your decryption keys with us, how about if we arrest you for failing to hand them over?" government has in effect said with RIP. Brilliant, quite mind-bogglingly, stupidly brilliant. And how's this for good measure: by assuming a suspect could hand over keys to the authorities in the first place, the government was reversing the burden of proof (the old assumed-innocent-until-proven-guilty dictum) and fallen foul of its own Human Rights Act . Well played. If you are going to do a bad thing, always do it very badly, I say.

The problem is the government is worried about law and order on the unruly upstart Internet-thingy. And while the DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) may want to make the rules about technology, the Home Office is keen to stick its nose in and make sure surveillance of new technology is as easy as surveillance of old technology.

The Home Office has been triumphant and will carry through RIP. So Part III of the e-communications bill, far from being dead and buried, is transformed and ready to rise phoenix-like from the ashes to live in harmony with its big brother IOCA and all the other spying ideas the government can think up -- all bundled together under the cosy umbrella of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Bill.

And while this new bill might keep the rain off the Home Office, Internet users are going to get soaked. There will be nowhere to hide and no such thing as a secret on the Internet for much longer.

Talking of secrets there was a big secret meeting this week as Oftel invited ISPs and telcos to talk about Internet charges, but told them to put fingers on lips and creep past journalists if they saw any on the way. Internet charges are not, apparently, a matter for public concern. BT was invited and, according to those allowed to attend, came in for quite a pasting over its wonderful new tariff introduced last week.

There are some times when being a fly on the wall would be great fun and this is one such occasion. According to BT last week, ISPs would just love their new tariff system but when they came face to face, the ISPs gave the idea a giant thumbs-down and threw BT to the lions.

And, perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that the lion may turn out to be Oftel . More often referred to as BT's lapdog, the watchdog is finally showing its teeth. It told attendees that the reason it has been powerless in the past is because it can only act on complaints -- hard as it may be to believe no-one has yet complained about BT's charges.

So I advise all operators and service providers to get on the phone to Oftel immediately. As Karl Marx may have said if he had lived in the Internet age -- ISPs of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your charges.