The news that four peers are trying to bring back the Snoopers’ Charter – in its last incarnation the Communications Data Bill – is depressingly predictable, but perhaps even more shameful than other attempts at legitimising mass data gathering and surveillance. It displays shameful opportunism that seems to plumb new depths – and in a number of different way
1 Bringing it in based on an event
It is a bit of an axiom that reactive law – knee-jerk law – is a bad idea. Law by its nature needs to be considered carefully, not passed in the heat of a moment. The more oppressive and ill-considered of ‘counter-terror’ legislation, however, seems to tend to be done this way all too often. The USA-PATRIOT Act (whose long name, the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act is worth a read in itself) is perhaps the best known example, but the Data Retention Directive worked just the same way, passed in the wake of the 7/7 bombings in London, and even making reference to those bombings in its preamble. That this directive was declared invalid by the Court of Justice of the European Union last year should give pause for thought. The CJEU said that the directive “entails a wide-ranging and particularly serious interference with the fundamental rights to respect for private life and to the protection of personal data, without that interference being limited to what is strictly necessary.” Authoritarian legislation, passed in haste, takes a long time to overturn. Even now, the repercussions are still being felt
2 Bringing it in based on this particular event
Hanging legislation on a hideous event is one thing – bringing it in based on this particular event, the Charlie Hebdo shootings, is even worse, as a careful examination of this event should have revealed not that more mass data gathering and surveillance is necessary, but rather the opposite. As I have written before, the shootings in Paris damage rather than enhance the case for mass data gathering and surveillance. The perpetrators were known to the authorities – they didn’t need to be rooted out by mass surveillance. The authorities had stopped watching them six months before, because, it seems, of lack of resources, resources that might have been available if a targeted rather than mass surveillance approach had been taken. This is part of an almost overwhelming trend – the killers of Lee Rigby and the suspects in the Boston bombings were also known to the authorities. There was no need for mass data gathering and surveillance to stop them – so to use this particular event as an excuse for bringing back the Snoopers’ Charter is particularly shameful.
3 Trying to rush the legislation through
It is almost never appropriate to rush legislation through – but sadly this is also all too familiar. Last summer, Parliament brought itself into significant disrepute by rushing through the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIP) in a matter of mere days, with no real time for scrutiny, no opportunity for independent expert analysis, and no real opposition from any of the main parties. This is not the way to legislate – it wasn’t right then, and it wouldn’t be right now.
4 Doing this in the midst of investigations and legal challenges
The one saving grace in DRIP was that it was intended to give breathing space, to allow proper, detailed and careful consideration to the many issues involved in surveillance. At the same time, there are a series of reviews over surveillance legislation in process – from the Intelligence and Security Committee and by the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation to start with. Moreover, DRIP itself is subject to legal challenge. To try to pass much more comprehensive and far-reaching legislation even before these reviews have been completed and their reports scrutinised, and before the legal challenges even make their way into the court room, is also deeply shameful – prejudging the results of those reports, and, in effect, disrespecting all those involved.
5 Doing this in the face of a clear CJEU ruling
What is perhaps even worse, is that on the face of it the planned legislation flies directly in the face of the CJEU ruling on data retention. The ruling was strong, clear and direct – but does not seem, on immediate reading of the legislation, to have been taken into account at all. Of course this may be wrong – but as the new legislation only appeared yesterday, and is planned to go before the Lords on Monday, there has not been time for proper, detailed analysis – and nor has there been any kind of explanation or reconciliation presented. This again highlights the point of taking time over legislation – and going through proper, detailed procedures.
6 Using a highly dodgy political method
The method which has been chosen to try to introduce this law is, to put it mildly, somewhat doubtful. Rather than a full Bill, the four peers have tabled an amendment – 18 pages of additional clauses – to an existing bill, the Counter Terrorism and Security, which has already gone through most of the processes necessary before becoming law. It’s like slipping in an entirely new law just before the first law is passed – it makes a mockery of parliamentary process, and in effect disrespects the whole of parliament. Describing it as trying to sneak in the Snoopers’ Charter by the back door may even be too kind.
7 Ignoring the committee
The original Communications Data Bill was subject to analysis by a full parliamentary committee – and that parliamentary committee came out with a highly critical report, a report which ultimately led to the abandonment of the Bill. By trying to bring it back now, seemingly virtually unchanged, the peers proposing the amendment are ignoring the committee and its findings – and as a consequence ignoring the whole process of parliamentary scrutiny.
8 Doing it at this time, in the run up to the election
To try to push through legislation like this in the run up to the election is in itself highly dubious tactics. Politicians have their minds on other things – and many of them may care much more about being re-elected than about whether the details of legislation to be passed are a good idea or not. Whether they ‘look’ good is what matters, and whether that makes them more electable. Right now, in the light of the anger and fear resulting from the Charlie Hebdo shootings, to oppose something that might make people safer, will be difficult – and may hinder the electoral prospects of MPs. This kind of thing has happened before – the way that the Digital Economy Act was passed in 2010 springs to mind – and again makes the timing of the bringing forward of the amendment feel very wrong
Why are they doing it this way?
The whole process – all these layers of opportunism – should make the alarm bells ring. This is a hugely significant piece of law – not just in terms of what it does but in terms of what it signifies, in terms of what kind of society we want to be living in, what kind of an internet we want to have. If we are going to make decisions like this, we should make them in careful, considered ways, weighing the evidence and seeking expert opinion. That’s the idea behind the parliamentary committee system, and the time it takes to bring laws in through normal procedures.
Why, then, are these procedures being avoided, and why are these underhand methods being used? It is hard to escape the conclusion that it is because those pushing it are afraid that if it is given the appropriate amount of time, of attention, and of scrutiny, then it will once again be defeated, as it was the last time around. In the cold light of day, do we want to live in such a surveillance society? I’m not sure – but I do think that trying to make those decisions in this way, in the heat of the moment and without the opportunity to give proper thought and proper scrutiny, is a disastrous way to proceed. Those behind it should be ashamed.