Yesterday I wrote again in defence of politicians. Many of the frustrations that give rise to ‘anti-politics’ are borne of people not understanding how politics works: there is a constant need to compromise and any hard choice will end up disappointing people.
Sometimes, however, the anti-political feeling is justified. I have rarely been as angry with politicians as I was when the coalition government passed the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act in just two days in 2014. This legislation made lawful a number of mass violations of privacy that the security services had been caught doing without public or parliamentary consent. The politicians from all parties made mendacious arguments in favour of the new law, claiming an ’emergency’ when there was none.
From that low point, my faith in parliament is slowly being restored.
The DRIP Act was a stop-gap, put in place to legalise some security practices that would otherwise have been illegal by virtue of a ruling at the European Court of Justice. Since then, the government has drafted some more comprehensive legislation, the Investigatory Powers Bill, to clarify and reform the powers that the security services have to spy on us and our internet communications.
There is a lot that is wrong with the Bill. Its very long and many of the important technical terms are not defined properly. The oversight offered is weak, and it will allow for indiscriminate collection of records pertaining to everyone’s internet usage.
However, it is encouraging that members of both Houses of Parliament have realised this. Three committees have now published reports: The Science and Technology Committee; the Intelligence and Security Committee (which has access to classified information); and a joint committee of MPs and Lords convened especially to scrutinise the bill. They have together made 123 separate recommendations to the Home Office. It is clear the bill needs a complete rewrite.
The Don’t Spy On Us Campaign has produced a handy summary of the recommendations of these three committees. The bill needs to be clear and comprehensive, and properly define vague terms like ‘internet connection records’. The government also needs to make the operational case for retaining all our browsing histories, and think again on whether to collect bulk personal datasets on people who are not suspected of any crime.
You can read the analysis online and there is also a PDF. Its relatively a short document (well, 14 pages) and every parliamentarian should read it. Why not contact your MP today and send them the link? With such broad and high-level criticism of the bill, I suspect the Home Office will have little choice but to think again.
So far, this is politics working as it should: elected representatives holding the Government to account, and pressurising ministers into producing laws that protect the rights of citizens.
The next step is for the Home Office to do the right thing too. It’s likely that Teresa May and her team will press on regardless with the formal publication of the bill. Today in the Daily Telegraph, a letter signed by over 100 people including politicians, NGO chief executives, lawyers, academics and the technology executives, urge the government not to rush to legislation:
Surveillance is a global concern and this new law, if done right, could lead the world. It will affect security, freedom, and commerce, both in Britain and overseas.
We must give the Bill the time it needs – not to rush it through Parliament with undue haste. We urge the Government to think again.