The wheels are coming off the online monitoring bandwagon (UPDATED)

Item one: A letter tomorrow in The Guardian from 15 Liberal Democrat MPs setting out their opposition to illiberal monitoring plans.

Item two: More Conservative MPs joining with David Davis in speaking out against widespread online monitoring, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Item three: The Times reporting, Cameron forced to retreat on snooping powers [£].

Item four: a subtle, but significant, choice of words by Nick Clegg in a media interview this lunchtime presaging a major change of course from the story given to the Sunday Times at the weekend. Clegg signalled (as does The Times report) that the Queen’s Speech will not include a Bill to go through  Parliament on monitoring. Instead: “We’ll make sure that our proposals are published in draft, people can look at them, people can debate them … This will be an open, consultative and properly scrutinised process”.

Exactly what will happen instead is still up for – very lively – debate in government. It may be a plan for some sort of committee investigation into the issue, perhaps a Joint Committee of the two Houses. It may be a draft set of options to go through a complete pre-legislative scrutiny process. It may be a more open-ended consultation. Crucially, Clegg and – pushed by Lib Dem opposition – Cameron have agreed that even the basic case for legislation to extend monitoring has not yet been made.

In other words, the wheels are coming off the bandwagon that parts of the Home Office and the security services were hoping would see sweeping new monitoring powers introduced. It hasn’t ground to a halt or been reversed but it is headed that way.

That is grounds for optimism rather than celebration or complacency, especially given the level of anger in the party and Theresa May’s dreadful article today (written in terms that could just as well justify the government monitoring the route taken by every pedestrian, as my little edit of her piece shows).

A key question for campaigners will be whether it is best to aim for the simplicity of “no Bill, full stop” or to push for legislation which may see the scope of monitoring expanded in some respects but also offers up much better safeguards than the current lax ones.

It is worth remembering just how flawed the current, RIPA based, controls are. In the last full year for which there is data there were 552,550 requests for traffic data made, a figure growing at around 5% per year. Accessing the traffic data for people is not a rare occurrence in the case of serious crime; it is widespread. Those access are not tightly controlled; they are lightly controlled without external judicial authority and even in some cases without any written record being required.

What is more, courtesy of the revelations from the phone hacking scandals, we now know that abuses of the system were not rare. Rather, they were regular and extensive, with some journalists regularly seeking and receiving information that is meant to be private and tightly regulated.

Even worse, if you read the last report from the Interception of Communications Commissioner – the regulator for this area – it paints such a glowing picture of the situation, it makes Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss seem a grumpy pessimist. Evidence from the media’s misdeed makes that picture not just optimistic, it makes it badly wrong.

The opportunity to fix that is the silver lining to all this: now the issue is on the agenda, the opportunity is there not merely to hold the line at the system that Labour left us with (as if that was a good one) but instead to make it a liberal one.

UPDATE: There’s more in Nick Clegg’s interview with The Guardian tonight:

Clegg announced that open parliamentary hearings would be held to examine draft clauses of a new bill.

The deputy prime minister, who said he has had to act as a restraining influence on the security services, made the announcement as he pledged to ensure the coalition did not repeat the mistakes of the last government. “I saw the appalling populist excesses of authoritarian home secretaries, like John Reid, under Labour. This total casual disregard for people who care about privacy and civil liberties – I am not going to allow this government to make the same mistake,” Clegg said in a Guardian interview…

In a rare insight into the tensions between ministers and the security services, Clegg said: “The security establishment will always say they need new powers tomorrow. It is the role of the politicians and parliament to make sure that requests for new powers, updated powers, made by the security services, are properly scrutinised and checked. That is the checks and balances in a democracy.

“In a rough and ready way, they are being played out semi-publicly now. You always have this push and pull. Under the last government, not only did they give everything the police and security services ever asked for, they gave them more than they needed.

 

* Mark Pack has written 101 Ways To Win An Election and produces a monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats.

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19 Comments

  • Stuart Mitchell 3rd Apr '12 - 10:45pm

    ” Under the last government, not only did they give everything the police and security services ever asked for, they gave them more than they needed.”

    So how come Labour dropped their original snooping plan back in 2009? A decision for which they of course receive no credit whatsoever – though Lib Dems already seem to be expecting us to praise the current government if it ends up backtracking on its proposals.

    My bet is that May will get 90% of what she wants and the Lib Dems will be left trying to flog some feeble “safeguards” to an unimpressed public, a la tuition fees and the Health Bill.

  • Stuart: Labour passed their original snooping plan on email and phone records (RIPA) in 2000. They then expanded the scope of it on four subsequent occasions in 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2010.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regulation_of_Investigatory_Powers_Act_2000

    They dropped the IMP, which was the extension of RIPA to other forms of online communication, with records held in a single centralised database after trying to push it for 2 years solid when they realised pushing that kind of thing in the year before a general election wasn’t a vote winner. I’ll give them the credit for wising up for their GE campaign, not for being trailblazers for individual liberties …

  • Paul McKeown 3rd Apr '12 - 11:48pm

    Brilliant parody, Mark. Thank you.

  • Adam Bernard 4th Apr '12 - 12:02am

    “A key question for campaigners will be whether it is best to aim for the simplicity of “no Bill, full stop” or to push for legislation which may see the scope of monitoring expanded in some respects but also offers up much better safeguards than the current lax ones.”

    I think “no expansion whatsoever of scope of monitoring” is a pretty fair demand. I am skeptical of the prospect of safeguards that turn out not to be as safe as all that.

  • Adam Bernard 4th Apr '12 - 12:04am

    (Obviously, safeguards are better than none. But that must not come with expanded scope of surveillance attached.)

  • It will be good if this is killed off one way or another.

    But I don’t want a consultation, green paper, parliamentary scrutiny etc. I want the damn idea killed off, coffin lid nailed on, sealed in concrete and then buried in the subduction layer.

    And then the party leadership to sort itself out so this sort of debacle stops happening. Either Nick signed off on this leak or someone was talking out of turn. If the latter presumably some sort of investigation will be underway?

  • Adam the best safeguard, like the best contraception, is abstinence 🙂

  • Adam Bernard 4th Apr '12 - 12:13am

    I want the damn idea killed off, coffin lid nailed on, sealed in concrete and then buried in the subduction layer.

    Hywel: well put. I’ll chip in for the nails.

  • Richard Dean 4th Apr '12 - 12:31am

    Abstinence is no good at all. It leads to all sorts of frustrations which create all sorts of other problems, Better to have it out in the open, if I may put it that way. The issue needs airing or it won’t go away at all.

  • Christian De Feo 4th Apr '12 - 12:35am

    I’m delighted that my local MP, David Ward, had signed the letter. Hopefully the pressure from him and others will get the government to reconsider.

  • Not good enough.
    Nick has to state boldly without any wiggle room that the party will not allow any extension of, and work to rollback the existing ability of, the security services and others to monitor our comms without a warrant.
    As for the secret courts, anyone who is content with defendants being unable to see the evidence against them, whatever the circumstances, has no right to call themselves a liberal.

  • Adam Bernard 4th Apr '12 - 10:22am

    Better to have it out in the open, if I may put it that way. The issue needs airing or it won’t go away at all.

    I’d really like to be able to agree with you. I would like a sensible debate on this in public and in parliament. Unfortunately, previous experience doesn’t bode well for Lib Dems to be able to make sufficient changes once something gets started into the groove of proposed legislation; far better for them never to get to that stage.

  • Richard Stow 4th Apr '12 - 11:11am

    These appalling proposals will create the surveillance state, a project started by authoritarian New Labour.

    They are totally contrary to core Lib Dem values – sign the e-petition at:

    http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/32400

  • Anon for today 4th Apr '12 - 12:23pm

    Is the proposed additional intrusion into our Civil Liberties as outlined by Teresa May and Ken Clarke the crunch time for both the Coalition and Nick Clegg ? There is no way in which Liberals can betray our very foundation – the old Liberal Party constitution stated that in everything “we put freedom first” . There are risks with freedom otherwise we might as well tag every citizen of the UK and monitor their every second.

  • Stuart Mitchell 4th Apr '12 - 6:50pm

    Ed: “Labour passed their original snooping plan on email and phone records (RIPA) in 2000.”

    You may be surprised to learn that RIPA was introduced with considerable support from the Liberal Democrats. See Hansard, 26 July 2000, where there is endless praise for the Bill, and the way the government consulted during its passage through Parliament, from the likes of Simon Hughes, Alan Beith, and Richard Allan.

    So please, let’s not rewrite history. RIPA was conceived as the very opposite of a “snooping plan”; its purpose, in tandem with the HRA, was to regulate a lot of snooping activity which up to that point had been entirely UNregulated. It gave UK citizens legal protections that they had not had before. (Hence the fact that Glenn Mulcaire and Clive Goodman were both convicted of offences under RIPA.) Alan Beith certainly appreciated this when he said: “It was wrong that the Government were sometimes characterised as engaged in a wholly unjustified snooping exercise.” (ibid)

    Either Hansard comes to us from some parallel universe, or Lib Dems today are distorting what happened back then.

    As for IMP, that never got beyond the consultation stage, which resulted in a massive thumbs down, and the government listened. Personally that’s the kind of government consultation I like – compare and contrast with the recent Health Bill “consultation”…

    By the way, I wonder why everybody is in such a frenzy about this now when it’s been on the cards since 2010, and the full details of the plan were widely reported back in February?

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/internet/9090617/Phone-and-email-records-to-be-stored-in-new-spy-plan.html

    Cameron’s comments today certainly don’t signal much in the way of backing down. It seems pretty clear to me that this whole “consultation” ploy is designed purely to park this nightmare safely out of the way until after the local elections.

  • Jayne Mansfield 6th Apr '12 - 11:47am

    Dr Pack- the Daily Telegraph carried a story , ‘ Clegg accused of hypocrisy over social justice’.

    In the article, Lord Carlisle the Liberal Democrat peer is alleged to have said that, ‘ The Green Paper Mr Clegg apears to have disowned was, as I understand it a Green Paper he supported when it was issued’.

    Are the allegations made in the newspaper true? I am truly concerned because the policies of the coalition government seem to be made by a few individuals, leaving only the PR surrounding their implementation to be discussed.

  • I have already emailed the Liberal Democrats to say that I am withdrawing my vote, which they have had since 2001. Mr Clegg MUST learn to be a bit more forthright in his condemnation of such moves towards a totalitarian state, not kicked into touch belatedly when the rest of the Party rouses from its slumbers and realises how May pulled a fast one. Anyway, too late for me, after all the other LibDem U-turns.

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