the electrohippie collective

Cyberlaw UK:
Civil rights and protest on the Internet

A statement by the electrohippie collective, December 2000

Since early Summer 2000, the electrohippies have been rather 'quiet'. This is because the majority of the e'hippies are based in the UK, and during 2000 the British government has been developing new laws to 'police' British cyberspace. This potentially makes the actions of the electrohippies collective in the UK, whilst not illegal, potentially subject to a disruptive investigations by the state.

Over the past six months the electrohippies have been investigating these new laws. In our view, whilst not affecting 'mainstream' Internet users in the UK, these laws impact on the rights of ordinary people who wish to protest or take some form of protest action on the Internet. This clearly affects the work of the electrohippies collective, but many other groups in the UK also.

In our view, these new laws are in conflict with our democratic rights. There should be no distinction between rights of protest in real life and in cyberspace. These laws create this distinction, and threaten the development of a true civil society within the new public arena created by electronic communications. The government cannot allocate this space arbitrarily to one group in society – the e-commerce corporations – and deny everyone else rights to develop their own activities and communities.

Both the Department of Trade and industry and the Department of Media Culture and Sport are introducing new policies to move Britain's media and commerce laws into the 21st Century. But these developments are moving hand-in-hand with parallel initiatives through the Home Office (the UK's department of the Interior) that are seeking to 'police' the Internet. But these new laws, rather than enabling the free use of the Internet by all, are seeking to blur the distinction between public protest, crime, and terrorism, in order to provide a 'safe environment' for corporations to do their deals.

'Sanitising' the Internet to remove the potential for public pressure on commercial operations removes the prime control mechanism on corporations. Corporations must operate within the moral and normative framework of society. Without this control their practices would become more and more excessive.

Providing an area for corporations to do business without the 'interference' of the wider society offends one of the key democratic principles that underpins civil society – it disenfranchises society from corporate governance. In essence, the British Government is seeking to define a 'virtual corporate free state', akin to the economic colonies of Africa and Asia established during the Nineteenth Century, where corporation can do business free of public pressure. The motivation for this is a perceived benefit to the economy. In fact, it merely concedes to the wishes of corporations who want be able to 'do business' without having people protest about environmental impacts, sweatshop labour or quality and safety standards.

Therefore, during 2001, the electrohippies collective will be developing tools and actions that seek to directly challenge these new laws, and expose the contradictions between the new e-commerce revolution being pushed by the government, and the government's other major project – the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. As well as seeking to develop D-I-Y e-action tools, we'll be looking to provide our expertise to campaigns in the UK, to provide our support, but also to find a platform for action that can take-on these new laws directly.

Over the coming months we'll be announcing new actions and resources on our website.

Watch this (cyber)space!


The British government has a policy of making the UK, 'one of the best places for e-commerce in the world'. This policy of course comes from a Prime Minister who, from his own admission, gets most of his information about the Internet from his kids.

There are two new laws that significantly change the rights of British citizens to freely use the Internet for political and protest action:

The main legislation on e-commerce trumpeted by the government is The Electronic Communications Act 2000. The draft legislation for this Act included proposals on the restriction of cryptography, but these were removed by the government because confusion this would create with the powers of the Home Office. Therefore The Electronic Communications Act:

But the government still wanted to reform cryptography and surveillance laws. So, because of opposition from politicians and civil servants, instead of their inclusion in The Electronic Communication Act the government created new powers in a new Act intended to bring the police forces of the UK into the Twenty First Century – The Regulation of Investigatory Power Act 2000.

The 'RIP' Act creates:

The RIP Act creates powers of investigation. The Terrorism Act goes one step further by blurring the division between the sort of activities that campaigners/protestors undertake, and terrorism. The problem rests on one word – 'OR'.

When the draft legislation was made it was a terrorist offence to 'seek to intimidate the public'. No problem there. But in it's last stages in the House of Lords this definition was changed to action where, 'the use or threat is designed to influence the government OR to intimidate the public or a section of the public' (our emphasis). The use of the word 'or' means that the terms can be considered separately, and therefore it could be interpreted as a 'terrorist act' if an action 'sought to influence the government'!

The Act also specifies various types of action or motivation that, combined with the objective noted above, could be construed as 'terrorism'. To be a terrorist act, it is a condition that the action must be, 'advancing a political, religious or ideological cause'. Nearly all protest action would fulfil one of these objectives, or could be argued to, and therefore this condition is easily satisfied. Finally, the action must satisfy one item in a list of possible actions that are engaged in by terrorists. Whilst conditions such as 'violence against people' or 'endangering the life of others' are acceptable, there are two possible clauses that can be satisfied as part of a number of types of protest action – that they:

Whilst the first of these could result from a real world action, the second is more likely to happen with a virtual action. This second point goes far beyond the existing UK computer misuse legislation – the Computer Misuse Act 1986. Currently, to commit an offence under the computer misuse laws of many states (including the UK) you must change the operational parameters of the computer system in order to break the law. Under The Terrorism Act, you would just have disrupt the operation of the system without any modification involved. For example, an email campaign that sent thousands of emails to a government minister, so causing problems with the minister's office because of the deluge of public communications, could be considered a 'terrorist act' under the current interrelation of definitions under the Act. That would be potentially unlawful. But if carried out using the postal system, so disrupting the function of the whole office, it would not.

These new laws are clearly aimed not just at formal crimes, but also at the 'difficult' cases involving active protest groups. In the UK over recent years anti-roads protestors, animal rights protestors, countryside campaigners, and even the recent fuel price protests, have been difficult to police because the mode of the action, whilst causing disruption, was essentially legal. Many security consultants are concerned that such actions, transferred to the Internet, could be equally effective. But these new laws enable Internet-based protest, if operated from the UK, to result in state investigation of those involved.

© 2000 the electrohippie collective. Produced by Paul Mobbs. Released under the GNU Free Documentation License
(with invariant sections being the document title and author identification, no front-cover texts, and no back-cover texts).