Freedom & Mass Surveillance: UK Political Parties’ Online Privacy Pledges
When one policy can change a vote, what can a political party pledge to win the support of voters with concerns over online privacy and freedom?
The UK’s major political parties all have strong, thought-provoking pledges, and with many voters still unable to decide who to vote for on 7th May, a single clause could swing the electorate.
British TV and newspapers – print and online – largely focuses on the UK’s publicly funded health service, economy, and immigration, but promises about Internet privacy and free speech are often ignored.
Please note that this isn’t an opinion piece. I’m not trying to persuade you to vote for one party over another; I don’t have an agenda. I’ve no idea who I’m voting for. Any of those in my locality stand an equal chance. But this is an important issue to me, so opinions are naturally likely to creep in.
Conservatives: The Communications Data Bill
Of the major parties, the right-wing Conservatives (also known as the Tories) arguably propose the biggest active threat to privacy. Dubbed the Snoopers’ Charter, the Communications Data Bill was proposed in 2012, but was limited by the centralist Liberal Democrats. While the Bill is technically not law at this time, the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill (DRIP) has been enforced since midway through 2014.
The Communications Data Bill would force Internet providers, social networks, and telecommunication companies to keep records of its customers for at least 12 months – longer if required. This hit the news as Prime Minister David Cameron tried to shut down WhatsApp due to that service’s encryption, but it’s actually a wider issue affecting metadata .
Perhaps the core difference between DRIP and the proposed Snoopers’ Charter is the sunset clause, which sees the former expire next year.
DRIP was rushed through parliament (one of the privacy breaches you might’ve missed in 2014 ), at odds with the European Convention on Human Rights‘ rulings over data privacy. The Tories, whose US equivalent is usually cited as being the Republican Party, counter that mass surveillance is a key part of fighting terrorism. Cameron went on to explain:
“That vital data is crucial not only in terrorism, but in finding missing people, in murder investigations, in serious crime investigations.”
In their time in parliament, the Conservatives have also forced service providers to verify ages, with the potential to block social networking, NSFW content, and sites about violence or sexual abuse – amongst many other topics – in a bid to supposedly protect children. This threat to online freedom will continue under a Tory Government, perhaps with credit card verification.
Liberal Democrats: Digital Bill of Rights
After entering into a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, many have questioned what influence the Liberal Democrats have had in power, and what sway they might have in the event of another alliance.
Last year, the socialist-leaning party showed “overwhelming support” for a Digital Bill of Rights that would stop the Government from collecting a wealth of online data. As established at their 2014 spring conference, the core principle is that such surveillance without suspicion is “alien to our traditional British values.” Nonetheless, party members (though notably not leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg) agreed to push the Snooper’s Charter through parliament with Labour and the Conservatives, by 436 votes to 49.
If entering into another coalition, Clegg has said, within six months, he’ll introduce a bill that will extend civil and human rights to online. This pledge comes soon after revelations that companies have been selling details of pensions on to private companies. Specifically, the Lib Dems argue a Digital Bill of Rights is needed to ensure:
“[T]he right to free expression, privacy from inappropriate use of our data by government and the private sector, the protection of consumers from unfair terms and conditions, and the ability to control data that is held about us.”
Greens: Internet Freedom
As believers in social justice, the ecological Green party opposes “disproportionate or unaccountable surveillance or censorship,” pointing out that while they approve of specific, necessary surveillance by intelligence services like the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), their aim is to target unlawful surveillance such as that uncovered by Edward Snowden .
They make pledges akin to the Lib Dems’ regarding human rights judgements, and sale of personal information. The Greens would, furthermore, introduce a more “satisfactory law on so-called malicious comments made on social media.” The current legislation, Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, is confined to those who send messages they know to be wrong in order to cause “annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another,” or one that is “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.”
The Greens find this crude, and admittedly it’s full of grey areas – which arguably applies to proposed legislation of a similar nature. Leader, Natalie Bennett stated that the Government needed to find a balance:
“In terms of things like security measures involving the Internet and electronic communications, we don’t want to try to protect freedom by destroying it.”
She was criticised for polarising opinions about other freedoms – that people should be punished for what they do, not what they believe. This was particularly in reference to citizens joining terrorist groups like Islamic State. Bennett later clarified that membership to any group inciting violence should be an offence.
UKIP: Freedom of Speech?
While not specifically addressing Internet privacy, the UK Independence Party’s manifesto advocates freedom of speech within the law. We have to assume this, too, applies to the Internet. It states:
“We believe all ideas and beliefs should be open to discussion and scrutiny and we will challenge the ‘culture of offence’ as it risks shutting down free speech.”
Their actions, however, tell us differently, particularly when it comes to bloggers sharing anti-UKIP messages. Last year, Michael Abberton tweeted a satirical ’10 Great Reasons to Vote UKIP’ poster, for example, and got a visit from the police requesting he remove the image. On his Axe of Reason blog, Abberton wrote:
“They said that they couldn’t force me to take it down anyway… So why did they come to my home in the middle of a Saturday afternoon? Also, seeing as my profile doesn’t have my location – how did they know my address, or even the town I live in?”
An apology was later made.
The controversial party’s main objective is the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU), and as such, they pledge to remove the UK from the European Court of Human Rights, which, their manifesto says, “has been known to put the rights of criminals above those of victims.” The European Convention on Human Rights frowns upon DRIP, but nevertheless had little effect on its implementation; whether UKIP’s decision to pull away from the court will have any effect on online privacy is unknown.
UKIP’s Citizen’s Initiative would mean bi-annual referendums about important issues (gaining more than 2 million signatures). Internet freedom and privacy could be part of this.
Labour: Updating Laws
The Democrat-esque Labour party wants to update our current laws to properly accommodate for “changing technology,” which would involve:
“[S]trengthening both the powers available, and the safeguards that protect people’s privacy. This is why Labour argued for an independent review, currently being undertaken by David Anderson. We will strengthen the oversight of our intelligence agencies to make sure the public can continue to have confidence in the vital work that they do to keep us safe.“
However, Motherboard warns us of Labour’s previous backing of the Communications Data Bill aka Snoopers’ Charter. Regardless, Labour MP, Tom Watson, argued that DRIP was “democratic banditry resonant of a rogue state” – yet this is only one politician’s opinion (and didn’t seem to hold much weight with his peers).
Otherwise, Labour remains elusive on their exact policies towards online privacy.
SNP: Targeted Approach
The Scottish National Party campaigns for Scotland’s independence. Though last year’s referendum proved their agenda is, for now, in vain, the SNP remains Scotland’s largest party, holding considerable weight in a proposed coalition. Leader, Nicola Sturgeon is adamant that the party won’t prop up a Tory Government, and similarly doesn’t support the Snooper’s Charter.
Instead, the party wants a proportionate approach to extremism that would still include surveillance, but not bulk data collection:
“[W]e will support targeted, and properly overseen, measures to identify suspected extremists and, if necessary, examine their online activity and communications.”
This would require regulatory powers, and the definition of what constitutes ‘extremist activity’ appears as malleable as current legislation.
Plaid Cymru: Unknown
No information about mass surveillance from the Welsh party has been forthcoming, at least not specifically through their manifesto. However, Plaid Cymru does state that they’re “committed unswervingly to human rights,” which would presumably encompass freedom of speech.
How Much Will We Sacrifice?
This the Government I want. pic.twitter.com/tgkUSUKnXY
— Mark Gatiss (@Markgatiss) April 16, 2015
Satirist, Charlie Brooker raised a comical but important point, as he frequently does:
“Whenever there’s a state-sanctioned-invasion-of-privacy issue knocking around, a few chirpy types pop up to say: ‘Hey, I don’t mind if the government wants to spy on me – I’ve got nothing to hide and I’m quite boring really.’ That’s your prerogative, but Jesus Christ, how did you get so beaten down, Mr Cog-in-the-Wheel?”
If you’re still not sure about your local political agendas concerning online freedom and privacy, the Open Rights Group have contacted politicians across the country to ask their views. This handy website reveals much about our MPs.
How far are we prepared to go for security? Is privacy a paramount concern when it comes to voting? And does mass surveillance actually work?
Image Credits: General Election Voting Hands (Shutterstock); Leanne Wood by National Assembly for Wales; orcon2014 (Greens) by Open Rights Group; Nigel Farage by Michael Vadon; Ed Milliband with banner by net_efekt; Nicola Sturgeon by the SNP; PM David Cameron by Number 10; and Nick Clegg by Liberal Democrats.