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.

Getty.
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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.