A surveillance bill that would give the government sweeping powers to access email and other encrypted Internet communications is coming under increasing criticism from companies and organisations as the bill heads for a vote in the House of Lords this week.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) bill, which has already been passed by the House of Commons and, unless sent back to the lower house, will become law on 5 October, would require ISPs (Internet service providers) to track all data traffic passing through its computers and divert it to the Government Technical Assistance Center (GTAC).

The GTAC is being established in the London headquarters of MI5.

Also, under the provisions of the RIP bill, the government - specifically the Home Office and the Home Secretary - can demand encryption keys to any and all data communications with a prison sentence of two years for those who do not comply with the order.

"It is an absolute disgrace," said Tony Benn, a member of Parliament and former minister for technology in the 1970s. "You can't bug anyone's telephone without a warrant, which is express written consent personally signed by the Home Secretary. Why should you have less protection over the Internet?"

Civil liberty organisations are worried that the government's e-mail interception bill would grossly encroach on privacy, while businesses fear the law will force e-commerce companies to move operations to other countries, such as Ireland, which do not have such restrictions.

"There is a real danger that the competitive disadvantage caused by this measure will frustrate the government's ambition of making the U.K. the best place to trade electronically by 2002," wrote Chris Humphries, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, in a letter to the Home Secretary Jack Straw.