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Election 2001: Tory manifesto embraces freedom of the Net

Web veterans will approve of the Conservative approach to monitoring Internet activity
Written by Wendy McAuliffe, Contributor

The Conservative party is proposing a laissez-faire approach towards regulating the Internet space, in contradiction with Labour's controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) which gives police and other authorities the power to intercept electronic communications and monitor Internet traffic.

Shadow technology minister Alan Duncan has criticised the government's "intrusive" regulation of the Internet, and the lack of transparency surrounding snooping powers granted through RIPA.

"Whilst we want to crack down on Internet crime, we are anxious to minimise levels of intrusion," said Duncan. "We want the Internet to be as free as possible without causing harm to anyone."

The Home Office recently ruled out the need for an independent enquiry into the controversial sections of RIPA that will give police and other authorities the power to intercept data transmitted over private networks and demand decryption keys from the place where data is encrypted. Duncan is adamant that his party would accept the Better Regulation Taskforce's (BRTF) -- an independent advisory body backed by the Cabinet Office -- recommendation, and commission an independent investigation into the Act.

"RIPA errs too far into intrusion," argues Duncan. "There has been too much conflict between the need for people to be free and the monitoring of Internet abuse, with freedom emerging as the loser." According to Duncan, the Conservative party is keen to redress this balance, and shift the emphasis from monitoring to freedom.

The Tory e-manifesto additionally voices concern over the financial impact this Act will have on businesses forced to comply. A report commissioned by the British Chamber of Commerce estimated RIPA could cost the British economy £46bn over five years in lost revenue, which Duncan brands "unacceptable".

Other technology-related policies contained within the Conservative e-manifesto include:

A repeal of IR35 -- a stealth tax attempting to treat specialist contractors, mainly in the IT sector, as though they were employees -- and replace it with measures to address abuse. According to Duncan this has "put a break on innovative technology people succeeding in Britain", with many contractors already leaving the UK to set up business in other countries.

Pressurise Oftel into accelerating BT's unbundling of the local loop, which will open the network to competition.

High priority will be given to broadband fixed wireless access particularly in rural areas that are currently broadband "black spots". Duncan argues, "this is a tragedy for rural areas -- e-business is well suited to rural areas as they are clean and communications-based, and could bring about a lot of employment opportunities".

Conservatives believe the policing of domain name ownership and cybersquatting is not a government issue, and supports the industry-led self-regulation. Duncan is opposed to the .eu domain name, which attempts to break away from the standard for suffixes being country specific, as "it is a deceitful breach of all existing domain name protocols".

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