Jimmy Wales: Theresa May Blanked Me On Snooper’s Charter Protests

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Wikipedia founder tells TechWeekEurope his concerns were ignored when he visited Theresa May last month

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales met with home secretary Theresa May last month to voice his objections to the Communications Data Bill, otherwise known as Snooper’s Charter, but claims he was completely ignored.

Wales had organised a face-to-face showdown with May and her team  last month, after a public outcry around the draft bill, which has proposed additional powers to let law enforcement agencies access communications data.

That information includes who has contacted whom over phone, mobile or Internet, at what time and from where. It does not include the content of those communications, but privacy advocates are still up in arms about the planned legislation.

Jimmy Wales – gov ignoring tech firms

Today, a committee of MPs and Lords appointed to scrutinise the draft bill said the proposals went too far in infringing on privacy and policy makers had offered misleading figures on the total cost of implementing the provisions. They also slammed the Home Office for not being open enough with tech firms, who will be forced to make infrastructure changes if the bill becomes an an Act.

Jimmy Wales told TechWeekEurope he brought up various technical and privacy issues in  the proposed bill with May and Home Office officials in November, but he and other technology firms have been ignored by the government, despite such businesses being at the heart of the plans.

“I had absolutely no impact on them whatsoever. They didn’t seem to listen to a thing I had to say,” he noted.

“I more or less had to insist on having the meeting,” he added. “They don’t really seem to have grasped how easy it is [to avoid snooping]… you can go to, open up an email account, it’s in English and I guarantee you they’re not going to cough up any data unless they want to.”

Such willful ignorance of technology companies’ agendas comes at a time when the government is attempting to lure tech firms to the UK. But Wales said Snooper’s Charter would cause serious damage to those efforts, especially given that the Coalition wants to  spend as much, possibly more, money on monitoring citizens than it does on investing in London’s Shoreditch start-up community, known as Tech City.

“This does make the UK less attractive,” he said, during a Big Brother Watch-organised press conference this morning. Wales said if start-ups wanted to become “the next Facebook”, having governments knocking on the door, asking for data and demanding they build up APIs so information can be sent through to a filter that will be used by police as part of the proposals, it would make life far more difficult.

“This would hit the Shoreditch start-up community very hard.”

The government has proposed handing over £859m over 10 years to communications providers to reimburse them for the cost of setting up the necessary infrastructure.

This would mean the government has pledged to spend  more on additional surveillance capabilities than on spreading fibre broadband to rural communities via its Broadband Development UK (BDUK) project, to which it has promised £530 million. Total government funding on the Tech City development is also far below the amount proposed for Snooper’s Charter.

Many are concerned the government is not listening to technology vendors’ concerns, especially at a time when the economy needs their support.

“The Joint Committee have listened to the tech community and civil liberties groups, but the Home Office is institutionally incapable of listening to anyone outside its walls,” Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, told TechWeekEurope.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales also said his online encyclopedia was hoping to have encryption on by default in the coming months, which would make government snooping on Wikipedia users significantly more difficult.

“We’re not ready to do it yet, but we would love to have all connections to Wikipedia encrypted all the time because we think what you are reading is quite personal. Particularly where people are reading up on a medical condition or things that are quite personal – we think they should be better protected,” Wales added.

Number 10 has reportedly admitted that some parts of the bill will be rewritten, but is not believed to be considering a complete rewrite, as deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and other MPs have demanded.

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