Last weekend the Don’t Spy On Us coalition (a grouping comprising the Open Rights Group, Big Brother Watch, English PEN, Liberty, Article 19 and Privacy International) held a day of action seeking to lay practical groundwork for a stronger international movement to protect digital civil liberties. Jenny Woods, one of our party’s most active campaigners in this area, and I attended the afternoon, which had some important take-away messages for the Lib Dems.
The event kicked off, appropriately, with a tightly packed crowd of delegates crammed into the hall watching a video message from a figure of authority projected on a large screen. Rather than an Ingsoc broadcast, though, we were treated to a webcam video of Stephen Fry from his hotel room at the Tony Awards. In the video Fry argued emotively that “using the fear of the unknown […] is a duplicitous and deeply wrong means of excusing spying on the citizens of your own country.”
Fry was followed by author and campaigner (and former party member!) Cory Doctorow who made a more technical appeal against the deliberate engineering in of features designed to protect copyright (digital rights management or DRM), which have, in the past, been vulnerable to malicious exploits. As there are strong penalties for everyday users modifying DRM software, it is much harder to stay ahead of motivated criminals seeking to exploit weaknesses in these areas.
Next up, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger discussed his experiences over the year since the Snowden leaks with Josie Rourke. Rourke is the artistic director at the Donmar Warehouse, and recently directed Privacy – a play inspired by Snowden’s revelations. It was here that things started to get political. Rusbridger lamented the inactivity of the major parties on digital rights, claiming that the Lib Dems had ‘done nothing in this area’. I could sense Jenny bristling at this as she had been instrumental in drafting and passing the amendment to the party’s Civil Liberties policy motion that proposed strong minimum safeguards for surveillance of communications data back in 2012.
Someone wasn’t going to let him get away with it, though: former MEP Sarah Ludford challenged Rusbridger on the Lib Dems’ digital rights record, reeling off the Civil Liberties motion passed in 2012 as well as our motion on a Digital Bill of Rights earlier this year, Clegg’s veto of the Communications Data Bill and his setting up of an inquiry into data gathering by security agencies. Ludford’s strong defence of our record drew a mixed reaction from delegates with a fairly generous round of applause mixed with some disgruntled mumbling from someone directly behind me. Rusbridger backed down and qualified his statement to say that he appreciated the work of the Lib Dem grassroots as well as Clegg and Huppert, but that many of our other MPs had still been too quiet on these issues.
After the Rusbridger segment, the conference broke out into smaller sessions and Jenny, Sarah and I joined the session on ‘Changing the law to uphold our privacy’. Much of this session focused on the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) and the EU Data Retention Directive, ruled invalid by the ECJ just over a month ago. Labour MEP Claude Moraes, who voted in favour of Charles Clarke’s data retention proposals in 2005, acknowledged that it had been a mistake to rush the directive through the European Parliament and paid tribute to Sarah Ludford’s record of opposition to the directive. Moraes is now a leading proponent of privacy and digital rights within the Labour Party and has authored reports calling for stronger privacy safeguards.
The day of action ended with a question and answer session with an all-star line up of Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti, Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales, author and cryptography specialist Bruce Schneier and Guardian intelligence correspondent Ewan MacAskill. One noteworthy moment was a comment from Caspar Bowden on American exceptionalism and how, although the Obama government seems to be pressing ahead with reforms to improve the online rights of American citizens, it doesn’t seem to be budging an inch on extending those rights to non-Americans. Finally, Jimmy Wales again returned to the theme of party politics, arguing that civil liberties advocates need to find a way to sell a pro-digital rights message to their own party. Though he seemed to think that Labour would take more convincing than others (language warning) …
The sheer volume of snooping scare stories over the day left me more convinced than ever that this is a cause that needs more action. You can start by signing the petition and emailing your MP at the Don’t Spy On Us campaign page. But it also reinforced that this issue needs political organising and that Lib Dems have both a duty and an opportunity to fulfil that role. We may never win over the grumbly sysadmin from the row behind me, but with Labour MEPs praising our European voting record and the founder of Wikipedia dropping f-bombs about Labour’s authoritarian tendencies on one side and, well, Theresa May on the other, I think it’s a good time to make sure that a few more people know about our Digital Bill of Rights policy than those who were in the York Barbican at 11am on the 9th of March. And I’ll buy a pint to whoever manages to sign Cory up again …
* Ed Long is the chair of the Association of Lib Dem Engineers and Scientists and a local member of Tower Hamlets Lib Dems