Don’t let the coalition crush Democracy Village

Protest is sometimes messy and sometimes inconvenient, but it remains a fundamental freedom.

It may strike readers as rather ironic that, on the day the Queen arrived at the seat of our democracy to deliver her speech at the State Opening of Parliament, police outside in Parliament Square made their presence felt in the Democracy Village that has sprung up there, searching tents for "bombs" (peace campaigners armed with bombs? The ironies just keep on coming!) and arresting the long-term peace campaigner Brian Haw -- all amid echoes of our new government's commitment to civil liberties.

Even before taking office, David Cameron declared that a Conservative government would attempt to remove Haw and his fellow protesters. But he was also at great pains to point out that he is "all in favour of free speech and the right to demonstrate and the right to protest". However, it's the "shanty-town tents" in the square that have led him to conclude that "enough is enough".

The appearance of Democracy Village has meant that others have joined in the call to clear the square. Colin Barrow, leader of Westminster City Council, has been particularly vocal. This is the same Colin Barrow currently facing calls for an inquiry over business dealings of his which have left the council owed £20,000.

I don't know about you, but I'm reassured by the constant declaration by those who want the protesters gone of their commitment to the principle of free speech -- that's the one enshrined in the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, to give it its full title. And I think we can safely assume, too, that these same people cherish just as fervently the right to freedom of assembly and association, also enshrined in the convention.

"Fundamental freedoms". "Fundamental" -- defined by the dictionary as "vital", "elemental", "crucial" and "indispensable". These freedoms are rightly considered the very bedrock of a healthy democracy. They are its lifeblood, because, without them, democracy dies. In fact, so important are these rights that constant vigilance is required, lest they be eroded by those for whom protest is inconvenient or threatening. And we must recognise that those who would attempt to do this immediately bring their fidelity to the ideals of democracy into question.

But what might our politicians find so threatening about Democracy Village? Let me see . . . perhaps that it is prominently protesting against the war in Afghanistan (which all the main parties support) and is vowing not to leave until British troops are brought home? Let's not forget that anyone opposed to the war was not represented by any of the three main parties during the election, and that a recent poll revealed 77 per cent of the British public want the troops brought home. Who, then, is more aligned with democracy? The politicians in parliament -- or the protesters outside its hallowed walls?

"Democracy" -- this is defined as "the common people, considered as the primary source of political power". "The people" -- hey, that's us! We are the "primary source of political power" in our democracy.

But alas, we have lost sight of the direction in which power should flow. So brainwashed are we that we allow our servants to dictate to us when and where we can protest against them! They even draft laws making it illegal to do so without their permission! Absurd!

The residents of Democracy Village however, have not lost sight of the real definition of democracy. They understand it very well -- and far better than those wishing to sweep them away in order to silence critical voices. They are giving us all a precious lesson in its true meaning if we only had eyes to see and ears to hear. They are safeguarding our democracy for us even in the face of insult, ridicule, ignorance and state oppression. Brian Haw, the man who has sat in wind, rain and snow for nine years straight to protest the slaughter and carnage of our wars has the kind of integrity that those who have tried every trick in the book to evict him will never possess.

You see, protest is sometimes messy; it's sometimes noisy and inconvenient, but weighed in the balance any disruption pales into insignificance compared to the priceless freedom it represents -- a freedom that protects us all. Parliament Square: what better place to fight for democracy, in the shadow of Mandela and among the ghosts of suffragettes? As the film-maker and long-term reporter on protest there, Rikki Blue, commented this week:

Protesting in Parliament Square is not a party, it's not a joke -- it's a hard-won, heart-felt struggle in the face of draconian laws put in place by arrogant and so-far untouchable politicians (who) are seeking any excuse to clear the square of the protest that daily reminds them what war criminals most of them are.

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7 problems with the Snooper’s Charter, according to the experts

In short: it was written by people who "do not know how the internet works".

A group of representatives from the UK Internet Service Provider’s Association (ISPA) headed to the Home Office on Tuesday to point out a long list of problems they had with the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill (that’s Snooper’s Charter to you and me). Below are simplified summaries of their main points, taken from the written evidence submitted by Adrian Kennard, of Andrews and Arnold, a small ISP, to the department after the meeting. 

The crucial thing to note is that these people know what they're talking about - the run the providers which would need to completely change their practices to comply with the bill if it passed into law. And their objections aren't based on cost or fiddliness - they're about how unworkable many of the bill's stipulations actually are. 

1. The types of records the government wants collected aren’t that useful

The IP Bill places a lot of emphasis on “Internet Connection Records”; i.e. a list of domains you’ve visited, but not the specific pages visited or messages sent.

But in an age of apps and social media, where we view vast amounts of information through single domains like Twitter or Facebook, this information might not even help investigators much, as connections can last for days, or even months. Kennard gives the example of a missing girl, used as a hypothetical case by the security services to argue for greater powers:

 "If the mobile provider was even able to tell that she had used twitter at all (which is not as easy as it sounds), it would show that the phone had been connected to twitter 24 hours a day, and probably Facebook as well… this emotive example is seriously flawed”

And these connection records are only going to get less relevant over time - an increasing number of websites including Facebook and Google encrypt their website under "https", which would make finding the name of the website visited far more difficult.

2. …but they’re still a massive invasion of privacy

Even though these records may be useless when someone needs to be found or monitored, the retention of Internet Connection Records (IRCs) is still very invasive – and can actually yield more information than call records, which Theresa May has repeatedly claimed are the non-digital equivalent of ICRs. 

Kennard notes: “[These records] can be used to profile them and identify preferences, political views, sexual orientation, spending habits and much more. It is useful to criminals as it would easily confirm the bank used, and the time people leave the house, and so on”. 

This information might not help find a missing girl, but could build a profile of her which could be used by criminals, or for over-invasive state surveillance. 

3. "Internet Connection Records" aren’t actually a thing

The concept of a list of domain names visited by a user referred to in the bill is actually a new term, derived from “Call Data Record”. Compiling them is possible, but won't be an easy or automatic process.

Again, this strongly implies that those writing the bill are using their knowledge of telecommunications surveillance, not internet era-appropriate information. Kennard calls for the term to be removed, or at least its “vague and nondescript nature” made clear in the bill.

4. The surveillance won’t be consistent and could be easy to dodge

In its meeting with the ISPA, the Home Office implied that smaller Internet service providers won't be forced to collect these ICR records, as it would use up a lot of their resources. But this means those seeking to avoid surveillance could simply move over to a smaller provider.

5. Conservative spin is dictating the way we view the bill 

May and the Home Office are keen for us to see the surveillance in the bill as passive: internet service providers must simply log the domains we visit, which will be looked at in the event that we are the subject of an investigation. But as Kennard notes, “I am quite sure the same argument would not work if, for example, the law required a camera in every room in your house”. This is a vast new power the government is asking for – we shouldn’t allow it to play it down.

6. The bill would allow our devices to be bugged

Or, in the jargon, used in the draft bill, subjected to “equipment interference”. This could include surveillance of everything on a phone or laptop, or even turning on its camera or webcam to watch someone. The bill actually calls for “bulk equipment interference” – when surely, as Kennard notes, “this power…should only be targeted at the most serious of criminal suspects" at most.

7. The ability to bug devices would make them less secure

Devices can only be subject to “equipment interference” if they have existing vulnerabilities, which could also be exploited by criminals and hackers. If security services know about these vulnerabilities, they should tell the manufacturer about them. As Kennard writes, allowing equipment interference "encourages the intelligence services to keep vulnerabilities secret” so they don't lose surveillance methods. Meanwhile, though, they're laying the population open to hacks from cyber criminals. 


So there you have it  – a compelling soup of misused and made up terms, and ethically concerning new powers. Great stuff. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.