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British seek broad law to monitor private e-mail

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LONDON — As the Clinton administration formally enters the debate about law enforcement surveillance in cyberspace, the British government is about to enact a law that would give the authorities here broad powers to intercept and decode e-mail messages and other communications between companies, organizations and individual citizens.

The measure, which goes further than the U.S. plan unveiled on Monday in Washington, would make Britain the only Western democracy where the government could require anyone using the Internet to turn over the keys to decoding e-mails and other data encrypted for secrecy.

Such a measure would be an important tool for the government because data is increasingly being encrypted for reasons of security and privacy.

Despite a barrage of criticism from all sides, the bill is likely to become law as it passes through its final stage in the House of Lords and returns to the House of Commons next week, because the Labor government, which offered the plan, holds a wide majority in Parliament.

Government officials say the measure is essential if law enforcement agencies are to combat the sort of sophisticated modern crime that is enhanced by access to the Internet, including pedophilia, drug smuggling, money laundering, terrorism and trafficking in refugees.

To justify such surveillance, the authorities would not be obligated to take elaborate steps to persuade an independent arbiter like a court that a crime had probably been committed. In contrast to the United States, the British authorities have had a tradition of unfettered and often uncontested intrusion into citizens' privacy.

Although many nations are considering similar bills to deal with encrypted data, only Singapore and Malaysia have so far enacted them.

Opponents of the measure in Britain represent an extraordinarily diverse interests, ranging from trade unions and Amnesty International to representatives of big business and newspapers from across the political spectrum. Not only does the bill violate basic civil liberties, they argue, but it would also impose onerous costs on Internet service providers, subject them to anti-competitive restraints, and drive business out of Britain altogether.