It’s been a week of publicity around the Snooper’s Charter. On Tuesday I attended a meeting with Julian Huppert MP where we talked about what is known about the expected redraft of the Draft Communications Data Bill.
Home Secretary Theresa May is widely expected to include this as an item in the Queen’s Speech on May 8th. If it doesn’t make this Queen’s Speech then it is not likely to happen during this parliament because of the length of time (the outrageous haste of the Digital Economy Act aside) it takes to process the Bills.
There is clearly an appetite at the Home Office to introduce such a law. It was attempted by the last labour Government but withdrawn for a number of reasons, not least of which was the opposition of the Conservative Party. How the heavy mantle of responsibility changes people!
My own view up until now has been if they are going to pass a law anyway then lets minimise the damage. For example although no details have been made available on the contents of the Bill it is believed that the Home Office is desirous of an automated access to the various databases that will be accumulated if this Bill became law. If we keep this as a purely manual interface, where the ISP has to physically hand over data, then there is less likely of mass data loss due to hacking by a 3rd party.
However reading some of the stuff published this week has made me rethink my tactics. The Open Rights Group (and others) letter that appeared on the front page of the Times does ask us to consider what kind of society do we want to live in. Do we want a surveillance state?
The precedent being set would legitimise similar activities around the world in countries that are notionally less democratic than our own and whose purposes are on the face of it likely to be more sinister. I say “on the face of it” but we would have to be very careful of mission creep in the UK.
Content providers operating on a global scale should be very concerned. If UK law said they had to handover private data on their customers’ activities whenever required by the government then their defence for refusing to do so when these requests were made by totalitarian regimes would be removed.
The Home Office has been very secretive about the content of the revised draft of the Bill keeping all briefings very general. My belief is that this is because there will continue to be huge holes in their arguments and they won’t want too much detailed discussion that might derail its inclusion in the Queen’s speech.
It is natural for people to be suspicious when others are keeping secrets. For example it’s like the attitude of most people towards the Masons. In this instance the ORG letter attacks ISPs for supporting the Home Office by maintaining radio silence regarding the details of the Bill.
Although I don’t know for sure I expect most ISPs haven’t seen the detail either. Certainly I doubt that Zen, who have been openly vociferous with concerns about the Bill will have been involved. Of course the bigger the ISPs get the more they have to lose. Some of the bigger ones are known to take neutral stances in respect of proposed legislation because they wouldn’t want the negative PR in their customer base by being seen to cooperate with the government on contentious matters.
On the other hand they need to be seen to be taking a responsible line where law enforcement is concerned. ISPs are after all staffed by human beings. We all want to clamp down on paedophiles and evildoers and always cooperate with requests from law enforcement for help using the existing RIPA system.
The other aspect of this line of debate is also the issue of competition and subsidies. A Freedom of Information request made at the end of last year showed that at least £400m had already been spent by Government on this Bill. A big chunk of this is likely to have gone on equipment in ISP networks. Part of me says “great, the government can pay for Timico to upgrade our own network” but the opportunity cost for us would be huge – diversion of key engineering staff to government projects.
You do have to ask how much of that £400 spend is now contributing towards lower operating costs of larger ISPs and thus increasing their competitiveness.
We still don’t know the detail of the Bill although we don’t have long to wait. In the meantime we can only look for clues. BAE Systems’ Detica who “develop, integrate and manage information intelligence solutions” are known to have been involve in HO meetings re the Bill.
We now have to wait and see but on balance I think this is likely to be a Bill whose disadvantages far outweigh its benefits. Julian Huppert by the way is a good guy. He is of the few technology savvy in a Parliament in which we have a highly dangerous situation: MPs who don’t understand technology voting on technology oriented laws drafted by civil servants who also don’t understand technology.
More when I have it…
Update just a few minutes later:
Looks like this has been killed off – Nick Clegg has come out against it and it will not now appear in the Queen’s Speech. I must say this a good demonstration of common sense and leadership by Nick Clegg which can’t do him any harm in the eyes of the electorate.