Protest and survive?

Million mask march

The latest in a long line of assaults on our right to protest seems to be on its way with the planned replacement of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) with ‘Ipnas’: Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance. Former DPP Lord Macdonald QC described the new powers as amounting to ‘gross state interference’ with basic freedoms – and it’s hard to argue with him, given the almost breathtaking scope of the powers. As described in the Telegraph, ‘the new system will allow courts to impose sweeping curbs on people’s liberty if they think they are “capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person”. They will be able to impose them if they think it is “just and convenient” to do so.’

One of the most important areas that the powers will have an impact on is the right to protest. It is a right that seems to be very much misunderstood and underrated in the current era – and a right that has been under attack in a wide variety of ways. It is also, however, a right that is of crucial importance, and one that needs defending. In the current political climate, where many people feel that conventional political paths are not functioning, where the current crop of politicians aren’t representing them, protest is one of the few ways that they can express themselves, and can get their messages across. Protest matters.

Surveillance and protest

There’s been a lot of talk about surveillance recently – and a lot of political attention on it – but much of it, to a great extent at least, has missed the point that one of the main functions of surveillance, in practice, is to monitor and control the dissent and protest. Indeed, it’s arguable that this may be the main purpose for much of the surveillance – particularly insofar as that surveillance covers conventional email, web-browsing, social networks and so forth. Whilst the terrorists, paedophiles and others who are ostensibly the primary targets are highly unlikely to use those more ‘normal’ parts of the net, and are highly likely to use encryption, anonymisation or other evasive techniques, the ordinary people, the organisers and the protesters, are the opposite. They use ordinary emails to organise their meetings, Facebook to coordinate them, and twitter to publicise them. Surveillance, therefore, though it finds catching terrorists and paedophiles as difficult as finding needles in haystacks, finds protests and protesters without much difficulty.

That’s why authoritarian regimes like to monitor the net so much – the late and unlamented Tunisian government, for example, hacked into Facebook’s login page so that they could intercept people’s usernames and passwords, so they could check where people were meeting, who they were talking to and so forth. It’s also one of the key reasons why the UK the government is so keen on surveillance. The summer headline in the BBC “Whitehall chiefs scan Twitter to head off badger protests” made the point very clearly. It’s not just to find out where protests might happen – it’s to head them off. And, indeed, by publicising the fact to try to persuade people not to protest in the first place. Don’t even think about it – we’re watching you, and we’ll stop you even if you try.

Combine the ability to find and monitor protests with the new and wide-ranging powers included with the Ipnas and you’ve got a near perfect tool to deal with protest. Indeed, surveillance of social media could even provide sufficient evidence to suggest that an individual is “capable of causing nuisance or annoyance” – and hence to slap them with an Ipna. Protests could be – and quite probably will be – stopped before they’ve even begun.

Protest and the media

It may be, however, that the perfection of this anti-protest double-whammy has not been noticed – because right now it feels as though the British ‘establishment’ does not really understand the importance of protest, or even that we really have a right to protest, or a need to protest. For many within that establishment, protest seems to be largely irrelevant, perhaps something out of the past – some people may recognise the title of this piece as coming from the anti-nuclear movement of the 80s, for example, and see protest as being something of a similar age.

The BBC, for example, did not even deign to cover the Million Mask March this week – not, I suspect, out of any conspiracy, but because they simply didn’t think it was important enough to be worth covering. Protest is not seen as important – because they don’t understand the role of protest. The BBC, I also suspect, thinks along very conventional lines: freedom of expression is, to many of them, synonymous with freedom of the press. To the BBC, that freedom is in the hands of journalists – and they’re quite wrong: protest is a fundamental part of freedom of expression. Where the media is constricted and constrained, as our media is – both through the law and through pressure-driven self-restraint, protest can become the most important part of freedom of expression of all.

The power of protest – and the need for protest

This is what Russell Brand realises – and the point that it seemed to me most of those criticising Russell Brand missed. They focussed almost entirely on Brand’s suggestion that voting was irrelevant – because to them, voting was all that there was. If you don’t vote, according to that logic, you can’t do anything to bring about change. They’re wrong – because there are many, many things that form part of a properly democratic system. Voting is just part of it – and don’t get me wrong, I have always voted and almost certainly always will – but there is a great deal more to it. And, again as Brand realised, when political institutions are failing you, you have to look for other means. Those means will almost certainly include protests.

That’s one of the reasons a clamp-down on protests is one of the first steps of an authoritarian regime that feels itself to be in trouble – or of a supposedly democratic regime that doesn’t really trust its people. Right now, that feels to be the way that our government looks at things. It doesn’t trust the people – so it wants to restrict people’s freedom to make their feelings known. It wants to control their protests – and we should not let them. If we are to survive as a democracy, we need that right to protest. We will probably have to fight for it, and fight very hard.

15 thoughts on “Protest and survive?

  1. Can’t say from even the relatively liberal enclave of Cambridge, I can see much sign of this neue welle of citizens’ advocacy happening. Perhaps political debate in this country has moved so far to the right that all perspective has been lost?

    Personally I find the venomous commentary on life on offer on the village bus far more frightening than anything on social media. But then perhaps I am overly schooled in the practical application of Prep School history, to know the consequences of die Volk following their cheerleader’s chants?

    • There are places and times where it’s happening – but I think the real point is that they’re afraid that it will happen, and trying to make sure that it won’t have any effect.

  2. Unless I am totally mistaken this freedom: the right to protest is at the core of the reason most personnel signed up to fight for this country.
    It seems totally fitting and absolutely poignant to write this now.
    I am deliberately not going into the wider politics of the rulers for sending troops into the theatre of war. To do so would besmirch their memory and the debt we owe in my eyes.

  3. I don’t know how much the proposed IPNAs have changed since July, if at all, but back then this summary — http://www.steeleslaw.co.uk/news/injunction-to-prevent-nuisance-and-annoyance — of the proposed legislation was truly frightening.

    If I’m understanding the above webpage correctly, there seem to be five points of concern: (a) threaten to… (b) capable of causing… (c) annoyance… (d) any person… (e) … on the balance of probabilities.

    So you don’t have to do it. Even if you do and it doesn’t annoy someone it only has to be ‘capable’ of so doing. Just annoying them, that is, not causing distress or alarm. Just *anyone*, not any *reasonable* person. And it doesn’t have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Oh, and all of the above could be applied to a 10-year-old.

  4. If you investigate many successful attempts of an extremely powerful and well funded organisation such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to change laws within the USA and compare their ‘ideology’ with many of the things that are happening within the UK today, the similarities I believe are more than what could be easily written off as coincidental.

    When Liam Fox and Adam Werritty formed The Atlantic Bridge ‘Charity’ the linkage was there for all to see. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Atlantic_Bridge (Note: most of its history has now been covered up).
    Who knows if secret organisational replacements may exist now?

    I believe it is certainly possible that secret and powerful people organisations (check the rich-list) with well paid and well funded lobbies may be attempting to form forever the way the world is run. If this ‘hypothesis’ was true it certainly would not be good for the 99% if its success was gained.

    Perhaps we should question every law that is written to remove the rights of the ‘99%’ as a law that may not be ‘accidental’ or badly formed? It is also possible the majority of us are sleepwalking.

    Certainly my thoughts could be dismissed as those of a ‘conspiracy theorist’ and seriously I would like to be proved definitively wrong, but I do worry because the coincidences are worrying.

    New technology has made the world a ‘smaller place’ and the oligarchs certainly have the cash and power to maintain their lifestyle. Is it also possible their obscene wealth makes them paranoid because they realise their ‘unfair’ idyllic existence could theoretically be taken away from them?

    What then are the chance they are lobbying to put laws and structures in place to prevent any democratic method of ‘legal retaliation’ to prevent this possibility from even happening?

    At the very least food for further thought or an educational ‘devils advocate’ debate.

  5. So when I doggedly hassle some donkey of a politician corporation or other institution on Twitter, as I am wont to do – in order to try to get some truth out of a matter, deliberately aiming to be annoying, because that’s what a minority has to do in order to defend their position in a democracy, then I can find myself silenced by an injunction. This is not going to happen, our democracy has been deteriorating and is in dire need of overhaul and yet the government comes up with a way to further silence us. These arrogant myopic over-privileged authoritarians need mass protests and strikes in order to shake their sense of righteousnes and sense of entitlement to an 11% pay rise while am working 12 hour days 6 days a week because my profession has gone and I’ve had to take up a trade with a pay cut. Their hubris and totalitarian leanings stink.

  6. If you want to see something truly frightening, read up on what the tax man can do to you.

    And yet, do they?

    I agree one needs to be cautious, but are we seeing people arrested for demonstrating? No. However, as an ex-councillor, I regularly got requests from residents to sort out problems that might be described as ASBO-type. Very often it was elderly people reacting unreasonably towards exuberant kids. Sometimes it was people being a good deal more than exuberant. It’s truly difficult to draw up a law which strikes the right balance in this area.

  7. Good article, but I take issue with this statement: “Whilst the terrorists, paedophiles and others who are ostensibly the primary targets are highly unlikely to use those more ‘normal’ parts of the net, and are highly likely to use encryption, anonymization or other evasive techniques, the ordinary people, the organizers and the protesters, are the opposite. They use ordinary emails to organize their meetings, Facebook to coordinate them, and twitter to publicize them. Surveillance, therefore, though it finds catching terrorists and paedophiles as difficult as finding needles in haystacks, finds protests and protesters without much difficulty.”

    While I agree with the conclusions of the statement, I fear the rush into defining what the ‘normal’ part of the web even is (as this changes much with time and is hard to define) and hinting that encryption is not used on a day to day basis for most people (for instance banking and most login pages are encrypted with SSL/TLS). People just don’t realize they are using encryption when they do and making that reality visible is important to de-stigmatizing the ‘encrypted’ web as it is vital for a thriving democracy and security in general. I understand your point that people do tend to use centralized systems that are closely monitored to protest, but maybe it’s time to put peer pressure on each other if we all truly want change and the ability to organize. There are efforts to make decentralized, federated, free and open source website software equivalents(friendica, diaspora, gnugoblin, jitsi, torproject) as alternative to these highly monitored systems, and supporting these efforts I think is the first step to real change. Throw a cryptoparty or find people who can host one, maybe even donate towards these efforts. It really isn’t too hard to encrypt one’s systems and browse the web anonymously if you have someone to help set up the programs and walk you through how to make it ‘just work’. Personally I had no clue but learned on my own by reading and trying it out for myself.

    I think the problem with the net and the surveillance is mainly a structural one, and as long as people stick to centralized and highly controlled/monitored structures then this is the logical result (I mean I can certainly understand why people with power/access would do this, though I don’t agree with it)

    • Thanks – and I wouldn’t argue with any of that. I’ve oversimplified, and I apologise. The point was rammed home by the sentencing of Jeremy Hammond – the three years after he serves his prison sentence, he’s forbidden from (amongst other things) using any form of encryption, which, exactly as you suggest, will actually prevent him from using a large amount of the ‘ordinary’ internet, like banking etc.

      I’d agree completely about the need to support the efforts to make less centralised and more ‘privacy-friendly’ services – but I think that’s only part of the solution. We need to get people aware of the issues, get them to make political demands of their governments – and also demand much better things from the commercial providers. It’s a long project, though.

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