LibLink: Norman Baker: Security and freedom in the internet age

Samsung Galaxy Note 3Norman Baker wrote an article for the party website which I thought you might find useful because it deals with some of the points raised in the questions to my mammoth post yesterday.  I must warn you, though, that there are some examples of apostrophe abuse in it, so steel yourselves.

Many, if not most, people are concerned about the rush to get this legislation through in just two days. Norman gives his explanation of why he thinks it’s necessary:

No government introduces fast track legislation lightly, but the challenge for Government has reached a pivotal moment, for two reasons. First, the European Court of Justice recently struck down important legislation on data retention, which before long will mean that internet and phone companies will start deleting data that the police need in order to investigate serious crimes. The European court made some important criticisms of the lack of checks and balances in the data retention directive, which we will take on board in our legislation.

Secondly, internet companies themselves have started to question the legal framework that allows our agencies to find out what terrorists and serious criminals are saying to each other. These are companies which are based abroad, and want to continue to cooperate with the warrants that we serve on them for data, but have now said that they may stop doing so if we don’t make it clear that as foreign companies they are legally obliged to help.
Both of these issues have left the UK Government with an urgent decision and a need to bring forward emergency legislation to maintain existing capabilities. We have agreed to do so, but only on the condition that the legislation has a short shelf life – it will cease to have effect at the end of 2016.

This means we are forcing the next government to revisit these issues from scratch. In the meantime we have insisted on a series of reviews and reforms which will both strengthen the transparency and proportionality of our laws, and pave the way for the moment in 2016 when a full-scale overhaul of the legislation will take place. These reforms have been proposed by Liberal Democrats and agreed on a cross-party basis.

He set out the additional safeguards won by the Liberal Democrats:

First, we will substantially reduce the number of public bodies that that are able to access personal data under RIPA.
Then for the first time, we will follow the example of the internet companies and publish annual transparency reports, setting out how many requests for data are made, by whom, and for what purposes.

Oversight will be strengthened through a new Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, to ensure that in future, civil liberties are properly considered in the process of policy-making within government. This is a model which has worked well in the United States and we will adopt it here. This is a vital change to the machinery of government and a really good legacy for us.

Then we have set in motion a full review of the Regulatory and Investigatory Powers Act. We have agreed the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation will carry out a review of our communications data and intercept laws before May 2015. Then, starting early in the next Parliament, all three party leaders have committed to a full parliamentary review of RIPA, drawing on the findings of David Anderson’s work and the expert panel that RUSI set up at Nick Clegg’s request in March. This will culminate in proposals for an updated and reformed piece of legislation in 2016.

You can read the whole article here.

However imperfect some of us feel this legislation is, I wonder if we aren’t missing the major battle ahead. It’s not about what happens in the House of Commons next week, it’s about winning the hearts and minds about people, getting them to actually care about this stuff because it does matter if the Government has the capacity to tell, indiscriminately, who you spoke to and when. There is definitely a place for getting this sort of evidence. After all, one of our arguments against control orders was that we could use intercept evidence to actually try these people in a proper court under a proper justice system. The issue is whether we should all have to have all our data stored .

There is another angle to this that’s slightly more sinister. Frankly, I’m unlikely ever to have the spooks digging around in my data, but the chances of perfectly innocent people from a particular ethnic grouping, e.g. young muslim men, having their right to privacy disproportionately interfered with is pretty high. And, of course, if one group can be picked on, so, conceivably could another and another. Remember that Martin Niemoller poem.

Sooner or later, if it hasn’t happened already (and given the nature of secret justice in many of these cases, we might never know), a perfectly innocent person who was unlucky enough to be phoning or texting someone who was up to no good is going to end up being sent to prison for a very long time, branded a terrorist.

What’s happened this week is that, thanks to our party, the state will have fewer powers to interfere in our lives next week than it has this week. The massive challenge we all face is getting people to take the threat to their freedom seriously. Most of us hand over all sorts of details to the likes of Facebook and Google without a second thought. How do we persuade them that the Government having the same access is a bad thing?  Civil liberties, if it’s even asked, doesn’t figure in the voters’ priorities. They are more likely to feel disproportionately  worried about immigration than Government intrusiveness when the latter is actually much more dangerous in the way it changes the nature of the relationship between the state and the citizen.

Rather than fight amongst ourselves, we as Liberal Democrats need to be getting ready to spend the next 29 months engaging people in a fight for our freedoms.  If we are not in government after the election, then those freedoms are in serious jeopardy. The most valuable thing the Liberal Democrats have done is not securing the safeguards, but putting a question mark into people’s minds about whether this stuff is ok. The party, organisations like Liberty and Big Brother Watch need to step up and win the debate.

Photo by Kārlis Dambrāns

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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9 Comments

  • Having actually looked at the proposed legislation, though, it doesn’t do a lot of what Norman says it will.
    It restricts RIPA access, yes, but broadens the the things RIPA covers; it DOESN’T comply with the spirit of the ECJ ruling, which while it applied to European law rather than British law, explicitly says that blanket data retention is wrong, and this proposed legislation extends the powers to have blanket data retention; it provides massive powers for the Secretary of State to introduce all the provisions of the Snoopers’ Charter and more by statutory instrument; AND it will be harder to challenge because it’s domestic law rather than European.

    Publishing transparency reports and a Sunset Clause are no comfort at all when compared to the above.

    All in all it’s a fustercluck that I am shocked and ashamed to see Lib Dems trying to defend.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 12th Jul '14 - 10:42am

    You have a point in the actual drafting of the legislation. It’s not something I feel comfortable with, but my point is that it would have been a huge load worse without the safeguards secured by our lot. And we do need to get on with persuading people while this stuff matters.

    If our lot had sat on their hands and said no, Cameron would have introduced something a lot worse and Labour would have backed it.

  • Caron, not that argument again – The big boys would have been much worse. Firstly you have no evidence to support it, just opinion. Secondly it is simply totally illiberal. Finally, Nick thinks it’s an improvement, and just like Secret Courts, more good Lib Dems will leave the party. Will you never learn?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 12th Jul '14 - 11:41am

    David, I was seething about secret courts and I’m wary but not so furious about this. I was trying to think why. Secret courts was very much about loading the system against the person suing the Government, rendering it virtually impossible to have a fair trial if you didn’t have equality of arms.

    While the data retention stuff is still worrying, it’s not about giving the state a new power that it didn’t already have. It’s about diluting something that’s being done already. I would much rather that the legislation was framed in different terms and I think it gives too much power to the Home Secretary but it has a limited shelf-life. A bad law for 2 years is still a bad law, but it creates some space to actually make the case against this sort of data retention.

    As a liberal, my feeling is that you shouldn’t have the state poking around in your private business without you knowing about it and without a very good reason. There are some cases when it may be legitimate to do so. We need to have a public debate about where these lines lie – and I’m far from certain that public opinion is on the liberal side. There’s a long way to go on this and the less time we spend fighting with each other and the more time we spend persuading others, the better.

  • “it’s not about giving the state a new power that it didn’t already have.”

    Yes it is

    ” It’s about diluting something that’s being done already”

    No it isn’t.

    Read the legislation. Whatever our ministers are telling you, it DOES give the state new powers, and it DOESN’T dilute the existing ones.

  • Looking into it more, it seems that the issue is that the bill allows the Secretary of State far too much leeway in terms of what statutory instruments can be issued and what they can do. It is very difficult as a liberal to argue in favour of giving the Secretary of State the power to arbitrarily introduce provisions that were rejected in a bill before Parliament only two years ago.

    Should the emergency bill simply restore the status quo as regards the ECJ ruling, I could accept it as a stopgap to allow for a full and frank public debate about where we go now that the complete retention idea has been struck down. But it seems that this goes further – that is not acceptable and the leadership needs to realise this.

    Its not just about preserving our ability to block bad legislation as part of coalition, its also about preserving Parliament’s ability to do the same to hold ministers and the executive to account. If Parliament has binned a bill, it should not then be resurrected in statutory instrument form and get brought onto the books through the back door.

    In a wider context, its definitely worth looking at how much (or indeed how little) parliamentary scrutiny is given to these statutory instruments and how effective this is.

  • The mad rush to take privacy away from the people of this country just sighting the danger we face without actually saying Who has the power too the reasons they can access this data how this is used ie are local Authorities going to spy on its citizens say for going on opponents websites or shop online in porn stores or??????? What grounds rules guide who can and under what reasons they can access data about a person and what automatic computer crawlers used and what they look for?? None of this has come out or will due to rush the bill through and do MP’s have exclusion from this data collection and spying on YOU WANT SUPPORT CLEARLY TELL PEOPLE not as you have been so far very vague Is that to much to ask?

  • I won’t repeat others’ excellent posts here and elsewhere on this ‘another fine mess’ but how on earth can someone like Norman Baker, in trying to defend this illiberal legislation, write about the problem of the deletion of “data that the police need in order to investigate serious crimes” in the same week that national news has highlighted the ‘loss’ of ‘data’ concerning serious organised child abuse and of torture renditions?

  • James Baker 13th Jul '14 - 3:13pm

    Here is what Liberty have to say about it:

    “Clause 1 of the Bill contains powers for the Government to continue to mandate blanket retention of communications data within the UK for 12 months. This is in direct contradiction of a CJEU judgment, delivered in April, which held that blanket indiscriminate retention of such private data breached human rights.”

    So the CJEU made a ruling that said blanket data retention was illegal and in breach of Human Rights and now Lib Dem MPs are going to legislate for new powers Liberty rightly point out breach Human Rights.

    Can you explain how a party that purports to uphold international rule of law and human rights can do this?

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