The question of how to police the internet – and how the police can or should use the internet, which is a different but overlapping issue – is one that is often discussed on the internet. Yesterday afternoon, ACPO, the Association of Chief Police Officers, took what might (just might, at this stage) be a step in a positive direction towards finding a better way to do this. They asked for help – and it felt, for the most part at least, that they were asking with a genuine intent. I was one of those that they asked.
It was a very interesting gathering – a lot of academics, from many fields and most far more senior and distinguished than me – some representatives of journalism and civil society (though not enough of the latter), people from the police itself, from oversight bodies, from the internet industry and others. The official invitation had called the event a ‘Seminar to discuss possible Board of Ethics for the police use of communications data’ but in practice it covered far more than that, including the policing of social media, politics, the intelligence services, data retention and much more.
That in itself felt like a good thing – the breadth of discussion, and the openness of the people around the table really helped. Chatham House rules applied (so I won’t mention any names) but the discussion was robust from the start – very robust at one moment, when a couple of us caused a bit of a ruction and one even almost got ejected. That particular ruction came from a stated assumption that one of the weaknesses of ‘pressure groups’ was a lack of technical and legal knowledge – when those of us with experience of these ‘pressure groups’ (such as Privacy International, the Open Rights Group and Big Brother Watch) know that in many ways their technical knowledge is close to as good as it can be. Indeed, some of the best brains in the field on the planet work closely with those pressure groups.
That, however, was also indicative of one of the best things about the event: the people from ACPO were willing to tell us what they thought and believed, and let us challenge them on their assumptions, and tell them what we thought. And, to a great extent, we did. The idea behind all of this was to explore the possibility of establishing a kind of ‘Board of Ethics’ drawing upon academia, civil society, industry and others – and if so, what could such a board look like, what could and should it be able to do, and whether it would be a good idea to start with. This was very much early days – and personally I felt more positive after the event than I did before, mainly because I think many of the big problems with such an idea were raised, and the ACPO people did seem to understand them.
The first, and to me the most important. of those objections is to be quite clear that a board of this kind must not be just a matter of presentation. Alarm bells rang in the minds of a number of us when one of the points made by the ACPO presentation was that the police had ‘lost the narrative’ of the debate – there were slides of the media coverage, reference to the use of the term ‘snoopers’ charter’ and so forth. If the idea behind such a board is just to ‘regain the narrative’, or to provide better presentation of the existing actions of the police so as to reassure the public that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, then it is not something that many of the people around the table would have wanted to be involved in. Whilst a board like this could not (and probably should not) be involved in day-to-day operational matters, it must have the ability to criticise the actions, tactics and strategies of the police, and preferably in a way that could actually change those actions, tactics and strategies. One example given was the Met Police’s now notorious gathering of communications data from journalists – if such actions had been suggested to a ‘board of ethics’ that board, if the voices around the table yesterday were anything to go by, would have said ‘don’t do it’. Saying that would have to have an effect – or if it had no effect, would have had to be made public – if the board is to be anything other than a fig leaf.
I got the impression that this was taken on board – and though there were other things that also rang alarm bells in quite a big way, including the reference on one of the slides to ‘technology driven deviance’ and the need to address it (Orwell might have rather liked that particular expression) it felt, after three hours of discussion, as though there were more possibilities to this idea than I had expected at the outset. For me, that’s a very good thing. The net must be policed – at least that’s how I feel – but getting that policing right, ensuring that it isn’t ‘over-policed’, and ensuring that the policing is by consent (which was something that all the police representatives around the table were very clear about) is vitally important. I’m currently far from sure that’s where we are – but it was good to feel that at least some really senior police officers want it to be that way.
I’m not quite clear what the next steps along this path will be – but I hope we find out soon. It is a big project, and at the very least ACPO should be applauded for taking it on.