A proposed British law that gives police and spies unprecedented powers to look at the Internet browsing records of everyone in the country will be governed by "the strongest safeguards'' against abuse, the interior minister said Tuesday.
Opening a House of Commons debate on the contentious bill, Home Secretary Theresa May said the law would provide "unparalleled openness and transparency'' about the authorities' surveillance powers.
The Investigatory Powers Bill gives law enforcement officials broad powers to obtain Internet connection records, a list of websites, apps and messaging services someone has visited, though not the individual pages they looked at or the messages they sent. It also requires telecommunications companies to keep records of customers' Web histories for up to a year and to help security services gain access to suspects' electronic devices.
May said that criminals and terrorists are exploiting technology to the hilt, and "we must ensure that those charged with keeping us safe are able to keep pace.''
May wants the bill to become law by year's end. But it is strongly opposed by civil liberties groups, who say it grants spy agencies powers that are far too sweeping.
In a letter published Tuesday in the Guardian newspaper, more than 200 senior lawyers and law professors said the bill "compromises the essence of the fundamental right to privacy and may be illegal.''
Internet companies including Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo have also raised concerns, saying the measures could weaken encryption, which is key to ensuring online shopping and other activities can be conducted securely.
The Internet Service Providers' Association said its members found the bill complicated and difficult to understand and believed its estimates of what it would cost to implement were "entirely unrealistic.''
Despite the criticism, the bill is expected to pass its first Parliamentary vote on Tuesday. The main opposition Labor Party says it will abstain, rather than oppose it.