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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My latest Brexit worry? What will happen to our footballers

My week, from why we should “keep on running” to mansplaining in the Commons.

It’s a funny old game, politics. Just when you think you’ve got your head round the myriad consequences of the Brexit vote, yet another one springs to mind. This week, I stumbled upon another sector in which Britain leads the world that will be thrown into uncertainty by Brexit: football.

The background of this moment of clarity is that I’ve been trying to rescue a youth centre in my constituency that the council can no longer afford to run. Thankfully, the brilliant New Ferry Rangers want to take it over as their clubhouse. I tell the chair of the FA, Greg Clarke, about our plans.

In doing so, I realise that the European Union’s competition rules apply to the beautiful game, just as they do to every other business sector in the UK. In practical terms, the absence of these continental rules opens up the possibility of changes to who can play, own and broadcast our wonderful yet expensive national game.

“Will Bosman still apply?” a colleague asks me with relish, referring to the 1995 European Court of Justice ruling that allows EU footballers to transfer easily from one club to another. Who knows? Who knows who knows?

 

Three lions on the shirt

The football dilemma is a microcosm of the wider immigration issue. Some imagine that by barring foreign talent from our shores, we will advantage British-born players. If fewer foreigners are allowed to play and English lads get more playing time in the Premier League, perhaps leaving the EU might result in the long-wished-for success for the England national team?

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. If you don’t have the skills to play alongside the best in the world, you probably don’t have the skills to beat the best in the world. As the Spanish La Liga and the German Bundesliga have shown, there is no incompatibility in allowing league teams to source great players from around the world and still having your home-grown stars come together to win international tournaments.

The most important intervention is to enable your people to develop the skills that they need to compete. This is as true for football as it is for everything else.

 

Hammond’s gilt trip

It’s Treasury questions in the House of Commons this week, and I want to ask about the cost of British government debt, which dwarfs even the monstrous levels of cash in modern football. It is a bitter irony that, following the global financial crisis that helped the Tories win the 2010 general election, the slow-burn economic crisis that the party has since brought about with David Cameron’s botched referendum has received scant attention. (Particularly in comparison with the Westminster lobby’s anxiety about Labour’s record on debt and the deficit.)

British debt owned by foreign investors has now breached the high-water mark of £500bn, its highest-ever level. As the value of sterling tumbles, we can only wonder what risks may lie ahead, as our creditors watch the value of these investments fall.

The Chancellor responds to me by explaining how gilts work. He doesn’t answer my question at all, however, leaving us all to wonder what horrors the Budget in March might bring. It’s a lovely reminder that I am not immune to mansplaining, even in the House of Commons, and that we call it “parliamentary questions” and not “parliamentary answers”.

It’s also a demonstration of how little economic policymaking is going on. The great nation of John Maynard Keynes, the inventor of global economic institutions that have steadied the world, is now reduced to skulking around Europe, seeking an embarrassing exit from the union that cemented his postwar peace settlement. Once, we led in Europe. Now we follow as the hard right barks its orders.

 

Trading down

Listening to Theresa May’s Brexit speech later on Tuesday, my heart sinks again. She puts paid to the idea that we might stay in the single market. Reducing immigration is her life’s work, apparently. It is a grave error and one that must be resisted. The biggest challenge to our country is not that people are prepared to come to work here and pay their taxes here. New Britons deserve our respect.

 

A sporting chance

On Wednesday, I meet the Speaker to discuss the ongoing work to build on the legacy of our friend Jo Cox.

Through these hard days, I am reminded constantly of two things. First, the words of her brilliant husband, Brendan, who said that we will fight the hate that killed her. Jo never gave up on a monumental challenge, and all our kids need us not to lose heart now. Second, that my experience of Jo was that she focused on the challenge ahead and never wallowed. She was the best of us, and I wish I were more like her.

One thing that Jo and I had in common was that we took part in the annual House of Commons tug of war. Unlike the Premier League, we women of the political world cannot boast world-beating talent in our sport. But we demonstrate the spirit of This Girl Can, Sport England’s campaign to empower women in their sporting endeavours (which returns to our screens soon).

 

Making tracks

While we wrestle in politics with the horrific events that happened last year and the risks ahead, I am trying to demonstrate the This Girl Can spirit and keep up with my physical activity. I would love to be better at football, the sport I adore, but there are not that many opportunities to play, given the parliamentary timetable. So I get up early for a jog along the Thames and tell myself that going slowly is faster than never going at all. Without a doubt, for progressives right now, “Keep on Running” is our theme tune.

Alison McGovern is the MP for Wirral South (Labour)

Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era