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Home Office wins Internet Villain award

The Home Office came out top of the UK government's 'axis of evil' agencies as doing most harm to e-commerce. However, the Information Commissioner won the Internet Hero award
Written by Matt Loney, Contributor

It was a foregone conclusion, of course. Only the UK government could win the Internet Villain award at ISPCON Europe 2002 because the the "evil axis" of UK government agencies -- to use the organisers' words -- had scooped the nominations.

In the end, the Home Office beat off its rivals, the Radiocommunications Agency and Oftel, the telecommunications regulatory body, to walk away with the infamous award from the annual ISP Awards ceremony. Or it would have, but sadly, noted the organisers, nobody from the Home Office turned up to collect the award.

Not even the e-commerce minister Douglas Alexander (who is a Department of Trade and Industry minister and who delivered the keynote speech at the awards ceremony) volunteered to accept the prize on behalf of the other department. The Home Office and the DTI have not always seen eye to eye on matters relating to e-commerce.

The judging panel included representatives from analyst firm IDC, consultancy Ernst and Young, and the Confederation of British Industry, alongside UK ISP industry figures.

The Home Office first drew the ire of the UK Internet industry with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which first saw the light of day as a white paper in 1999 under the direction of Jack Straw, who was the home secretary at the time. RIPA, as the Act is now commonly known, extends the controls that previously governed interception of telephone calls to data communications.

Under RIPA, law enforcement agencies can force communications service providers -- any company providing email, Web or Internet access whether to employees or to customers -- to provide traffic data. Among the measures seen as most onerous by many in the industry is Part III, which allows law enforcement authorities to demand keys to encrypted data; in a reversal to the normal rule of British law, if the communications provider says they do not have the encryption, the burden of proof rests on them to prove their innocence. Failure to prove their innocence could result in a two-year jail sentence.

Ironically, it is the delay in the full implementation of the RIP Act that earned the Home Office the Internet Villain award. "It was felt that such delays make it difficult for the industry to make the necessary preparations for working with the new legislation," said the judges.

If Internet Villain is the nadir of awards then the zenith is Internet Hero, which went to Elizabeth France who, as Information Commissioner, is responsible for ensuring compliance with privacy laws.

Elizabeth France, who was present to collect her award, said the decision was "a sign of the maturity of the industry that it can choose as a hero someone who is one of its regulators. We need to recognise the fact that this is a very complicated world and we do need a framework in which we can operate so we can live in a safe society."

The judges praised France for being "sympathetic to industry, non-bureaucratic and pragmatic, cooperative and helpful in a number of issues including the legal aspects of spam, data retention and preservation."

Other award winners:

Best national consumer ISP: Freeserve

Best pan-European ISP: AOL

Best virtual ISP: Powergen

Best unmetered ISP: Telewest

Best national business ISP: Clara.net

Best pan-European Business ISP: Cable and Wireless

Best small business ISP: Pipex

Best application service provided by an ISP: Telewest

Best hardware supplier: Sun Microsystems

Best Carrier: Energis

Best co-location provider: IXEurope

Best Internet application of service: Inktomi

For 2002, ISPA added a fourth division to the ISPAs; the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) Award, for developments in the field of online safety. This award went to the BBC.

Matt Loney reported from ISPCON Europe 2002 in London

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