America's biggest tech companies have united to criticize new digital surveillance laws proposed in the UK. In evidence submitted to the committee assessing the legislation, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Twitter warned that the UK government's actions could have "far reaching implications." The companies anticipate that "other countries will emulate" the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill, which includes controversial measures such as forcing ISPs to keep a record of every citizen's internet activity for the past year.
The Bill was introduced by the UK's home secretary Theresa May last year, who says it will help fight organized crime, terrorism, and cyberbullying. However, the Bill has been roundly criticized by industry experts for its potential overreach and vague language.
The bill could force tech companies to weaken their encryption
In the US tech firms' evidence, they note that the Bill could potentially force companies to introduce backdoors in their encryption. Although May has stated that the UK government does not wish to weaken encryption, the Bill itself includes "obligations relating to the removal of electronic protection applied by a relevant operator to any communication or data." Facebook, Google, Microsoft, et al note that they have "concerns" about this wording, and would rather the Bill state explicitly that no company will be required "to weaken or defeat its security measures."
Apple has also criticized the legislation
Similar worries have been expressed by Apple, which submitted its own evidence on the Investigatory Powers Bill last month. Apple CEO Tim Cook said in November that the proposed legislation could have "dire consequences" if introduced. "If you halt or weaken encryption, the people that you hurt are not the folks that want to do bad things. It’s the good people," said Cook. "The other people know where to go."
The reaction of US tech firms to the legislation echoes corporate outcry following the Snowden revelations. Companies then made it clear that they do not want to lose users' trust, and cannot be seen to be complicit with government surveillance. (Although past evidence suggests companies were happy to help spy agencies in the past as long as nobody knew about it.) "The ultimate test we apply to each of the authorities in this Bill is whether they will promote and maintain the trust users place in our technology," write the tech giants in the evidence published on Thursday, adding that the current provisions are "a step in the wrong direction."
However, the terrorist attacks of 2015 — including those in Paris in November — have hardened the debate around surveillance and encryption, and the most recent signs suggest the UK government is still determined to push forward with the Bill. Discussion will continue, with the legislation scheduled to be voted on later this year.