The data bill debate must move beyond terrorists and Orwell

It is wrong to define the argument over the bill as one between security and liberty.

For almost a decade, the intelligence and policing community has been worried that changes in modern communications – mainly the shift from telephones to more varied devices and networks – would make their work more difficult. And each government of the day has tried (and failed) to push through legislation to update capabilities in the face of staunch opposition.

The latest attempt is the draft Communications Data Bill. To recap, the Bill aims to improve government access to internet "communications data" (who, when, and where you communication with someone, but not what you say to them). Communications data are vital for law enforcement, intelligence work and the Crown Prosecution Service. When these agencies needed this information, they used to go to the small number of telecommunications companies who collected it. Now of course we communicate via e-mail, social media messaging, phone apps, game platforms and more - so now communications data are being generated by all sorts of companies who don’t routinely collect or save it, and so it's not always there when needed. The Bill is asking/demanding/paying relevant companies to collect and retain it, so that such data is available on request.

Such was the furore when it was announced back in April that a pre-legislative joint committee was scrambled to calm the maelstrom and review the proposals. Today it published its report. Anyone familiar with the Bill would not have been surprised by its findings. To sum it up as briefly as possible: yes, the government needs to improve access to communications data, but the Home Office did not make the case well enough, nor consult widely enough. The powers contained in the Bill are too broad in scope - and greater oversight is needed. Go back and re-draft it. The committee has been extremely diligent (and I hope David Davis MP will apologise to the chair, Lord Blencathra, whom he had little faith in). But I think there are three big lessons from this whole affair.

First, the bitter rancour surrounding this Bill is caused by a fundamental problem. State surveillance needs to be proportionate and necessary, but these words are losing all meaning, because no one really understands the technology and the possible risks and benefits that come with it as internet-enabled devices become ever more ubiquitous, least of all our law makers.  When critics protest the measures will not work, or 'we're the only country that does this', the Home Office are unable to respond with technical details for obvious reasons. And the government wants to make the legislation broad – ‘future proofed’ - because the technology will have moved on again soon, and they don’t want to go through this again in two years. This Civil liberty groups, understandably, weren’t too pleased about that. This is going to get worse in future.

Second: terrorism and paedophiles do not automatically trump digital rights. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has consistently argued the new Bill is essential to tackle terrorism, serious crime and paedophilia. She may have believed that any law strengthening powers to do that would be more or less accepted. In that, I believe she may have underestimated how important digital freedoms and data sovereignty are to people today. Surveys consistently show that data and privacy are among the top concerns citizens have. The online and privacy community – often tech savvy, networked, and highly defensive of internet freedom – are a powerful lobby group.  

Third, any legislation about security powers tends to degenerate quickly into a debate about terrorists versus an Orwellian dystopia. Last Monday, in an interview with the Sun, the Home Secretary said that anyone against the draft Bill is putting politics ahead of people’s lives; and came close to saying anyone opposed to the Bill is taking the side of those criminals, terrorists and paedophiles. It was an unfortunate and inaccurate charge levelled against the Bill’s many thoughtful and principled opponents. But the Bill’s opponents have also been alarmist by (inaccurately in my view) calling it a "snoopers' charter" and claiming it represents mass internet surveillance. Suggestions that this Bill would put us alongside China, Iran and Khazakstan are wholly inaccurate. When giving evidence to the committee, the Observer journalist Henry Porter (who also called the Bill the "megalomaniac dream" of a senior civil servant) said that these measures could become "the structure for a police state" – something the Crown Prosecution Service and others that have actually used communications data dismissed.

Ignore the papers this morning: the committee’s response is a sober and careful one. At core, it recognises that the philosophical pros and cons of the Bill are not really about security versus liberty, but the more nuanced debate of pro-active data collection (collecting and retaining data so it’s there if you need it) against a more limited one (using what you have), and whether we need to ‘future proof’ law of this kind (it thinks not). It realises that modern communication has changed dramatically, and law enforcement must keep up, including in designing a regulatory system that reflects the changing concerns people have about privacy. It recognises this is not easy and will ultimately fall to Parliament.

This means going back and re-drafting a Bill that trades a bit of operational secrecy for clarity about when and where the measure will be used. Above all, the Home Office should consult more widely, and then set about some improved drafting to eliminate worrying ambiguities, give a tighter clarity of purpose, and include tougher scrutiny and oversight. A revised Bill could keep both sides content.  This is all less interesting than terrorists and Orwell, of course, but then making law usually is.

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

Home Secretary Theresa May warned MPs who oppose the bill: "Do not put politics before people’s lives." Photograph: Getty Images.

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”