Surveillance: It’s not all about you

The Investigatory Powers Bill will be published tomorrow.  The Home Secretary will set out her vision for what snooping powers the security services should have in their tool-box, and also what oversight parliament, the judiciary, and independent ‘watchdogs’ should have over the use of those powers.

I work for English PEN, one of the six organisations leading the Don’t Spy On Us campaign.  Be in no doubt I will be sharing our analysis of the proposed new law and recommendations for improvement.

A constant issue regarding civil liberties (and one that we have discussed before on these pages) is how to convince members of the public to care about human rights when few of us ever actually experience a violation of those rights.  In the past, I have discussed the idea of ‘everyday rights‘ and the notion that, even if we are not tortured or detained, our lives are made marginally worse when our rights are eroded, even in small ways. Continue reading “Surveillance: It’s not all about you”

Dear Lord King: Ludditry is not cool, it’s dangerous

Oh! This puts me in such a bad mood.

https://twitter.com/jjvincent/status/560082501075742721

Lord King is author of amendments tabled last week to the Counter Terrorism and Security Bill. They would have granted the government surveillance powers without proper checks and balances. Arguing in favour of the changes, Lord King admitted he did not use social media and did not understand apps like WhatsApp or SnapChat. Continue reading “Dear Lord King: Ludditry is not cool, it’s dangerous”

The Defamation Act 2013: Complete & Unabridged

As is my wont, I made a book to illustrate this. Physical objects are useful props in debates like this: immediately illustrative, and useful to hang an argument and peoples’ attention on.

James Bridle is probably best known as the artist who first articulated ‘The New Aesthetic‘, but he has run many projects on books and technology. His project ‘The Iraq War‘ is a favourite of mine – the entire Wikipedia Edit History of the ‘Iraq War’ article, from 2005-2009, which stretches to twelve volumes. He’s also the creator of a Book of Tweets.

James’ projects are the inspiration of one of my own – The Defamation Act 2013: Complete & Unabridged. It collects together, in chronological order, every single parliamentary document published during the passage of the recent reform of our libel law. These include the various versions of the Bill (which I have previously published in a spliced together version, ‘Tracked Changes in the Defamation Bill‘), the parliamentary Hansard transcripts of the debates; and the amendment papers. Continue reading “The Defamation Act 2013: Complete & Unabridged”

Alan Turing Pardon: Why So Narrow?

The Alan Turing Statutory Pardon Bill has been published on the Houses of Parliament website.

Turing was a mathematician and philosopher who cracked the Nazi Enigma code and invented electronic computing. He was also a homosexual, and was convicted of ‘Gross indecency between men’ in 1952. As a result he lost his security clearance, was subjected to chemical castration, and committed suicide when he was only 42.

This statutory pardon seeks to atone for the Government’s appalling treatment of a national hero.

Nevertheless, the idea of such a narrow pardon worries me a little. The implication seems to be that Turing gets a pardon because he achieved so much. But that should not be how the law and justice works. What about all those under-achievers and ordinary men who were convicted under the same iilliberal and unjust law? Why do they not get a pardon too?

Alan Turing
Alan Turing

Tracked Changes in the Defamation Bill

tracked-changes-first-page

Jubilate!  The Defamation Bill recieved Royal Assent yesterday It is now the Defamation Act 2013.

Watching the legislative process up close has been fascinating.  It fills me with confidence that candidate laws are put to such detailed and rigourous debate.

To give a sense of how a Bill changes as it passes through both Houses of Parliament, I have created a Defamation Bill (Tracked Changes) document.  Download a PDF [223 KB] or a Word Document [49 KB].  It is based on the successive Bills and amendments found on the Houses of Parliament website.  In the document, you can see how some clauses were tweaked, with the alteration of a word here or there.  In other places you can see where whole clauses were added and then removed, as the House of Commons disagreed with the House of Lords. Continue reading “Tracked Changes in the Defamation Bill”

What the hell just happened with the Defamation Bill?

There’s a little bit of confusion over what happened during the Defamation Bill debate in the House of Lords yesterday afternoon, and today in the House of Commons. This is understandable, as the ‘ping-pong’ process is confusing, with ‘motions to agree amendments’… and amendments to those amendments.

The only issue at stake was was hurdles should be placed before companies wishing to sue. The pre-exising law allows corporates to bully critics with libel threats and a legal ‘reputation management’ industry has emerged, with websites and bloggers receiving threats unless they remove critical content. Which?, the consumer magazine that reviews products, often receives a legal threat after they give a product a poor rating!

In an earlier parliamentary debate, Labour succeeded in adding a significant clause to the Defamation Bill. It introduced a permissions stage for companies (you can’t sue without leave of the court) and asked them to show financial loss. It also extended the Derbyshire principle, so private bodies delivering public services could not sue when they are criticised by citizens questioning how taxpayers money is spent. Three measures in one clause.

Continue reading “What the hell just happened with the Defamation Bill?”

Traditional Marriage Paves The Way For A Return To Polygamy

Adam and Steve
Photo by Dave Schumaker on Flickr, Creative Commons Licence

Its great news that MPs voted for marriage equality yesterday.  We should remember that the debate yesterday was only one of several stages in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.  There will be other votes on this issue, and the arguments for and against the reforms will persist for a little while yet.

The anti-family campaigners’ main argument is this: If we re-define marriage to include same-sex marriage, what is to stop a future parliament from re-defining the concept again, to allow polygamy, or inter-species marriage, &ct?

The usual rebuttal to this is that marriage has often been redefined – The Liberal Democrat campaigner Mark Pack’s recent post on this topic is a great example of this argument.  There is, however, another argument, that is admittedly less persuasive but worth an airing.  It is this:  If we acquiesce to the traditional, religious conception of marriage, what is to stop future parliaments making further reversions in the future?  The religious books are pretty clear that the male has primacy in a marriage, and a religiously motivated politicians might seek to restore that inequality by redefining marriage.  Likewise, the Bible has passages that warn against inter-faith marriage, such as 2 Corinthians 6:14:

Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?

Stern stuff.  The Old Testament also endorses polygamy.

So giving credence to anything proposed by the religious or social conservatives risks a similar if different ‘slippery slope’ argument.  “Traditional Marriage Paves The Way For A Return To Polygamy”.

This is a reminder that it is in the very nature of our political system that laws may be changed, and that any change to any law means that it could be further reformed in the future.  This is not a bad thing (although those who see their values falling out of fashion tend to see it as such).

Are there any immutable laws that are not open to revision by future parliaments?  In times past, God’s Law performed this function.  But this was a flawed system, not least because religious authorities seem happy to re-legislate the Word of God when it is convenient.  Countries with a written constitution seek to encode some underlying laws that frame what legislators can and cannot do… but constitutions are open to amendment and repeal.  In Britain, the European Convention on Human Rights can trump domestic law.  Its incarnation in British law, the Human Rights Act, has a certain meta-status, governing what other laws can or cannot say.  But even these laws are open to repeal or withdrawal by law-makers.

There is no final arbiter that can prevent the slippery slope towards mad laws, dangerous and unethical laws, if a parliament wishes such things to be so.  This is why the vigilance of the people is so important – to ensure that the law keeps pace with, but does not go beyond, our values.  This seems to be happening in the case of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which reflects the new public consensus that marriage should be available to all.

The mess under the bonnet of the Houses of Parliament website

Parliament, 17th December 2012
Parliament, 17th December 2012

Excuse me if I go off on a technical rant for a moment.  I find it very irritating when people don’t use HTML mark-up properly.  I can forgive the occasional user, or those relying on WYSIWYG editors, but for large, professionally coded websites, there is no excuse for mark-up which does not apply standards correctly.

What has vexed me so?  The Houses of Parliament website.  In many ways this is a great resource.  They offer video of parliamentary debates, and the Hansard of the previous day’s proceedings is posted promptly the following moring.  However, the underlying mark-up is flawed. Continue reading “The mess under the bonnet of the Houses of Parliament website”