Online Activity to Be Stored for a Year Under U.K. Surveillance Bill

Theresa May
Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May pictured at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, October 6 , 2015. May will introduce the controversial Investigatory Powers Bill. Reuters/Phil Noble

Internet companies will be required to store details of people's online activity for a year as part of the British government's controversial Investigatory Powers Bill, which was published Wednesday in the House of Commons.

The bill is designed to extend the powers of the country's security agencies, giving them the authority to track the online communications of terrorism suspects, organized criminals and people involved in abuse, exploitation and kidnappings, reports the Guardian. It replaces a tougher draft, dubbed the "Snoopers Charter" by critics, that was killed off in 2013 by the Liberal Democrats, who at the time shared power with the Conservatives.

The government has promised that strict safeguards will accompany the bill, such as the requirement that police obtain judicial authorization before they can access the internet connection records of an individual.

Under the law, internet firms would be required to hold the basic domain address of a visited website, but not the full browsing history of pages within that site or search terms entered, according to the BBC. Home Secretary Theresa May has said the government "will not be giving powers to go through people's browsing history."

If the security agencies wanted to discover the detailed content of the communications, they would need to obtain a warrant. But the issue of who has the power to authorize that warrant has been the subject of some debate. According to the Guardian, May will replace the current system of three commissioners with a single "investigatory powers commissioner"a senior judge appointed by the prime minister.

A new criminal offence carrying a two-year prison sentence will also be created to prevent abuse of such communications data by public authorities.

The bill in its new form is still controversial. Currently, the method of surveillance whereby the records of every website visited by every British citizen are retained is banned in the U.S., Canada, Australia and all European countries as well as the U.K., over fears that such data might fall into the wrong hands, according to the Guardian . Critics say the bill remains highly intrusive.

Yet the government believes the bill will be necessary to keep the public safe. A spokeswoman said on Tuesday Prime Minister David Cameron saw the bill as "one of the most important pieces of legislation during this parliament because it goes ... to the heart of the government's duty to keep the British public safe."

The bill will be examined in detail by both Houses of Parliament before the final bill is voted on next year.