Party conferences and the Comms Data Bill

ORG ran two sessions this year, with Big Brother Watch, at the Lib Dem and Labour conferences. We also leafletted all three Conferences, with help from ORG and No2ID volunteers in Brighton, Manchester and Birmingham – a big thank you to everyone who helped!

At Labour’s conference on 1 October, we were joined by Stella Creasy MP, Katy Clarke MP and Mike Harris, head of advocacy at Index on Censorship. Stella Creasy outlined her questions, which included:

  • Will it work (is it technically feasible)?
  • How much will it cost?
  • What are the alternatives?

Her concerns were essentially pragmatic. This is understandable, but ignores the fundamental right to the protection of privacy, which is alarming. 

I assume that Stella Creasy and the Labour Party are uncertain or unconvinced by these arguments, but for ORG supporters, I suspect many would like to know that a future Labour government would not simply roll over for the Home Office as seemed to be the case under the last Labour administration.

The usefulness of data comes in part from its intrusiveness. So the collection and access to communications information is balanced against the fundamental right to privacy.  As a start, many politicians accept that the police should have access to communications traffic data. Of course, sometimes law enforcement have had access to this data, as with phone bills.

However, at other times, as with library reading records, or who we send mail to, then the UK government has quite rightly decided that it has no such right to this kind of traffic data at all.

The correct balance is in general that data should be available to law enforcement only if it exists anyway, and then only when they have reasonable suspicion, and also when it is not linked to the content of communications. It must not cause people to limit their access to information or speech. This way, access to data is about investigation, rather than mass surveillance or control, and can be justifiable. 

This approach has been severely upset by data retention laws, which require traffic data to be kept beyond their usefulness for business. Data retention has given politicians the impression that police should have a right to a record of our communications online. This makes the intellectual case for new collection powers, where that data is hard to access otherwise, seem reasonable.

However, there is pushback. Data retention has been challenged in a number of states. The latest challenge to be mounted is in Slovakia. An EU challenge is also due.

The Conservative and Lib Dem conference sessions on the CDB started much more from the point of view of these fundamental issues. All speakers acknowledged the need for lawful access, and were concerned to examine what kinds of gaps in access to data might exist, and how that might be reasonably dealt with.

For instance, companies in other countries do need to have arrangements that allow UK police to request data. These might be through agreeing to co-operate where the justification and request matches their domestic and UK law, or by international legal co-operation.

The good news is that political support outside of the Home Office seems to be pretty thin. Labour are equivocal, sensing public opposition. The Lib Dems know the Bill is bad news, and their position has hardened as the Joint Committee has looked at the CDB; Nick Clegg said he would take Julian Huppert’s advice on the issue. Many Conservatives are very skeptical, both on cost and privacy grounds.

That doesn’t mean the Bill is bound to be defeated. There are three major concerns. Firstly, the degree of wriggle room that the Joint Committee give the government. Secondly, the need that the coalition will have not to humiliate the Home Secretary Theresa May, who pushed this policy for the Home Office. Thirdly, related to this, the temptation to ‘open up RIPA’, and gamble that keeping the Bill alive could lead to a more fundamental reform including the lack of independent supervision of user data that is accessed by law enforcement today.

In general, many MPs are prone to seeing the CDB as a “technical issue” rather than a civil liberties battle. They are somewhat disconnected from the public on the topic, and need to hear more from their constituents. (This will help harden political opposition in Parliament, so please do it!)

While the Parliamentary situation is complicated, compromise and face-saving measures are temptations that must be avoided. ORG and other campaigners are clear about what we want. The Bill is a disaster, and it needs to be scrapped.