UK Constitutional Law Association

Tom Hickman: Further Concerns about the DRIP Bill

In a blog post on Monday I expressed concerns about the lack of time for proper scrutiny of the changes to be brought in by the DRIP Bill.

Towards the end of that blog I expressed puzzlement at a change to be made to the definition of “telecommunications system” in RIPA. This definition is central to the scheme of RIPA and is the basis for many of the powers therein.

The Governments’ suggestion that this change is intended to ensure that services like webmail are caught is not particularly persuasive. The explanatory material provided no further explanation.

Recall, the current definition of telecommunications service contained in section 2 of RIPA states that:

“telecommunications service” means any service that consists in the provision of access to, and of facilities for making use of, any telecommunication system (whether or not one provided by the person providing the service)

A telecommunications system is defined broadly as any system for facilitating communications electronically.

Clause 5 of the DRIP Bill provides that a telecommunications service shall henceforth include services, “facilitating the creation, management or storage of communications transmitted, or that may be transmitted” by means of a telecommunications system.

One explanation for this change presents itself. Telecommunications along with many other companies often store vast amounts of data about their customers and the usage of the company’s services for their own business purposes. The data can be stored for many years and are used for the company’s own business analysis purposes (think of Amazon analysing the purchasing habits of customers). Such data can be enormously valuable to the company.

It is stored in “data warehouses” or other storage facilities and is accessed in a variety of ways by increasingly sophisticated data search and management tools.

In addition, other data are held and used on other “platforms” within telecommunications companies for the companies’ operational purposes.

Such data may no longer be on the individual systems of users, such as in their email archive or records (which companies might not retain for very long). It does not necessarily include all of the data that would be of interest to law enforcement or intelligence agencies.

But the intention of the change to the definition of telecommunications services is to provide access to such platforms and if such platforms hitherto did not fall under RIPA then this amendment would represent a substantial change in the law. It would also potentially allow access to large amounts of data going back well over a year.

This suggestion is necessarily put forward on a tentative basis given the absence of time that has been allowed for people to scrutinise the Bill or consider its implications.

But two conclusions do seem warranted.

First, these thoughts underscore how unsatisfactory it is for legislation of this nature to be presented to Parliament on a fast-track basis as a behind-closed-doors “done deal”.

I am not of course suggesting that access to such platforms would necessarily be unjustified, my point is that it needs proper scrutiny and Parliament needs to know what it is voting on.

Secondly, history may identify this amendment as the most significant part of the DRIP Bill, although it is the one being given the least attention.

The DRIP Bill will pass through the House of Lords today and there will be no further opportunity for Parliamentary scrutiny of its terms.

Tom Hickman is a Reader in Law University College London and Barrister at Blackstone Chambers.

(Suggested citation:  T. Hickman, ‘Further Concerns about the DRIP Bill’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (16th July 2014) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/).