Rumours persist that the Government is going to try to sneak the Communications Data Bill into the Queen’s Speech. There are so many reasons this is a bad thing it’s hard to know where to begin. I’ve posted about it many times before – I’m not going to rehash the arguments, but the whole idea of the bill is what I’ve previously described as a ‘Despot’s Dream’, allowing the authorities free rein to monitor everything any of us does on the internet, to profile us in every detail.
The arguments have been made in many places. The costs are immense, the burden on business potentially terrible, the system likely to be ineffectual – and if implemented the whole thing could face legal action unless details are revealed, as discussed in this excellent piece in the Telegraph.
That latter point brings me to my main question: why hasn’t there been a consultation about this? The previous parliamentary committee report, at the end of last year, which was pretty damning of the earlier, withdrawn draft of the Communications Data Bill, specifically asked for a full consultation to take place. Why hasn’t it? I was informed by an insider that the draft was ready back in February – ready, I was told, for that consultation. Why has it not taken place? What are those behind the bill afraid of? Do they think they won’t be able to deal with the criticism that will come? Do they want to push the bill through without proper consultation – and without demonstrating that they’ve been able to answer the many, many criticisms that the bill faced the first time around?
We need to be very much on our toes – because this really matters. What’s being proposed here isn’t a small scale modernisation of existing powers – it’s something entirely different, something which shifts the balance from privacy to surveillance. I realise that some people may think that people like me are at the extreme end of the debate – but can’t we at least have that debate? Openly?
At the moment, it seems not. The release of the draft bill has been delayed, and delayed, and delayed, and still there’s no sign of a proper consultation. We need one, and we need one now. If the government wants to curtail our civil liberties, to compromise our privacy, to limit our freedom of expression and our freedoms to assemble and associate online – because that’s what this kind of internet surveillance can do – they should at least let us have a debate as to whether the benefits (if they exist) are sufficiently strong for it to be worth our while sacrificing those civil liberties.
So come on, Home Office, tell us. Let us look at your plans. Let us scrutinise your evidence. And let’s do so as openly and publicly as possible.
UPDATED: It’s now being reported in the Guardian that the Home Office says it has had its ‘consultation’ – though quite who it has consulted with is being kept quiet. It certainly hasn’t consulted with civil society, or with academia, let alone with the public. That is entirely unacceptable – and makes it look more and more as though the Home Office is planning what can only be described as a stitch up. A public consultation, it appears, would be too much for them to contemplate. The words ‘police state’ don’t come easily, but they’re starting to loom in my mind.