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Open Rights and digital freedom

ORG has been formed to battle Charles Clarke's data retention plans and to lobby for public debate on digital rights

A digital-rights organisation, Open Rights Group (ORG), has been formed to tackle European and British legislation which could threaten digital and civil freedoms. ORG will serve as a hub for other cyber-rights groups campaigning on similar digital rights issues and follows in the footsteps of the US group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

ORG has centred its focus on Home Secretary Charles Clarke's proposed draft EU framework on data retention for ISPs and telecommunications companies which it believes could contravene the European Convention on Human Rights.

We caught up with Suw Charman, one of the cofounders of ORG, to ask her why the current digitalisation of information gives such cause for concern.

Q: How could European and UK legislation threaten the digital rights of citizens?
A: The UK, France, Ireland and Sweden are trying to push through a directive on data retention into EU law which would force all member countries to compel all telecommunications and Internet service providers to save information about the use of their services by the public. They say this is for the purpose of prevention, investigation, detection and prosecution of crime and criminal offences including terrorism.

There are a number of issues that concern us, firstly the attempt by Charles Clarke to push through this draft framework into legislation that will mean all ISPs and telecoms companies will have to record traffic data, log phone calls and locate callers using GPS. At the moment we have the right to privacy under the Constitution of Human Rights.

Why was ORG set up?
One of the reasons we set up ORG was because there was very little balance in the media about digital rights, no one was questioning the government. We think it's necessary to provide a media clearing house to raise awareness of these issues.

What do you consider 'fair use' of rights over digital content?
We need a public debate on what fair use is. We need to know what the government's goals are and what ramifications there are for the average person. If the government changes into one less respectful of human rights then we need to know what safeguards there will be going forward.

Why is it so important to protect our digital rights?
Because this isn't just about the geeks online, this is about issues such as e-voting and our right to privacy.

How do these issues affect IT professionals?
There is certainly a focus for the IT professional. Under the data retention legislation the cost of retaining data would flow to the service provider, but where will the buck stop?

Will you work in conjunction with Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)?
We've been working with them already to get this set up and we are pleased...

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...to have their expertise behind us. We are particularly interested in finding out what policies exist for releasing information that's already in the public domain.

What are the implications of the digitalisation of information?
This is two-fold. There is a positive aspect and a negative aspect to it. Digitalised information can have a very positive impact, for example we've all experienced situations where we are put through to the wrong department and speak to various customer service staff often futilely. Digitalisation of information can help route information more effectively and provide a better service. However the downside is this can open the gateway for abuse as soon as you start to join up governmental departments you start to get privacy issues that need to be addressed. We have to make sure we have transparency and discussion.

Is there a way we can balance our need for security with our need to protect our freedom?
A balance is achievable, it just takes a bit more imagination, but we have to protect our civil liberties and protect our digital rights

When would Charles Clarke's proposed draft become law? br /> The UK, Ireland, Sweden and France are all proposing a draft framework which will first be looked at buy the Justice Home Affairs Committee, there will then be a formal meeting in October to try and get it adopted. There are a few MEPs who are put out by this move.

What impact will this legislation have if the UK adopts it?
ISPs and telcos will be faced with storage issues and they are going to have a budget to meet, the government might subsidised them but it can be argued that this means less money to spend on schools and health. As a result many ISPs are going to go out of business and will also put up connecting charges.

What is ORG's plan for the next few months?
We are still very much in the pre-acorn stage , but we have some talented individual supporting us. We now need to set ourselves up legally as a company limited by guarantee and which will give us legal status. We currently have 850 subscribers but need 1000 to launch officially.

Visit the ORG Web site to learn more.