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Cameron eyes 'non legislative options' for more spook snoop powers

Woolwich slaying could mean Con-Lab internet spy-cop pact

Prime Minister David Cameron aims to extend spooks and cops' powers to snoop on Brits' internet activities without bothering to pass any new laws.

While the Tory leader told MPs that he hoped to gain cross-party support (ie: Labour's) on granting the authorities more access to communications data in the UK, he added that he was considering "non-legislative options".

His comments come after his Coalition second-in-command, deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, bulldozed Home Secretary Theresa May's attempt to get her draft internet surveillance law, the Communications Data Bill, mentioned in the Queen's Speech - which sets out the UK's upcoming legislative programme.

Instead, her Majesty confirmed last month that narrow provisions were to be put in place to aid spooks and police in accessing information they need to supposedly protect the British public "in relation to the problem of the matching of IP addresses".

With the Lib Dems opposed to the web-snooping proposals, Labour has made it clear that it would throw its weight behind the Tories and back a law enabling greater online surveillance in the name of fighting terrorists and crimelords.

(While in government, Labour was forced to abandon its efforts to bring in such legislation under its proposed and widely-derided Interception Modernisation Programme. In opposition, the Tories rejected that plan.)

Now the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich nearly two weeks ago has reignited the debate on the government and police accessing information about our activities online. Labour used the shocking slaying as political currency to demand that the government revisits May's draft comms data bill.

On Monday in the Commons, Labour leader Ed Miliband pressed Cameron to explain to the Commons what his current view was on the issue, in light of Rigby's death. The Prime Minister replied:

On the issue of communications data, I think we need a frank debate in the House. There is a problem in that, currently, about 95 per cent of serious crimes involve the use of communications data.

This is not about the content of a fixed or mobile telephone call, but about the nature of the call: when it was made, who made it and when they made it.

As telephony moves from fixed and mobile telephony on to the internet, our intelligence and police services will have a problem.

We need to address that problem, and we should do so sensitively and carefully, looking at all the non-legislative options, but I hope for a measure of cross-party support, on both sides of the House, to try and get this right, because we will suffer if we do not.

He had earlier told MPs in the Commons he was concerned that Brits were being radicalised by websites stuffed full of inflammatory content. Cameron said "5,700 items of terrorist material have been taken down from the internet, and almost 1,000 more items have been blocked where they are hosted overseas, but it is clear we need to do more".

Labour MP and Home Affairs Select Committee chairman Keith Vaz asked the PM if he would revisit the panel's 2012 recommendation of a code of conduct for ISPs and search engines. He asked Cameron if he considered companies such as Google to be "far too laid back about removing extremist content" from services such as its video-sharing site YouTube.

Cameron said that he would look again at the code to "see what more can be done".

Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert - a long-standing opponent of May's proposals - was told by the prime minister that it was not "helpful to refer to taking action on communications data as a snoopers' charter".

Huppert had urged Cameron to agree that such powers would not have prevented Rigby's vicious murder but instead "would treat us all as suspects".

The PM said that a "grown-up debate" was needed in Parliament to discuss what the government should do as "telephony moves on to the internet". He claimed failure to do so would put the UK at risk. He added:

The draft [communications] bill that we produced also had huge amounts of pre-legislative scrutiny. We have to recognise that there will always be civil liberties concerns about this issue, so we should look at how we can start moving the debate on, recognising that there is a block of telephony covered by fixed and mobile telephony that is dealt with.

The premier went on: "As we move to more internet-based telephony, how are we going to help the police deal with that? We may have to take this in short steps, so that we can take the House with us and listen to concerns about civil liberties, but I am convinced that we have to take some steps, otherwise we will not be doing our job." ®

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