Yesterday’s shameful passing of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act, nodded through without amendment and without even the perceived need for a vote in the House of Lords, was not just very bad news for the UK, it was bad news for the world.
The ease with which it was passed, the speed with which it was passed, and the breadth of the powers granted send signals around the world. Some of us have been warning about this effect for a long time – what we do in the UK is being watched around the world. If we, as a supposedly mature, liberal democracy believe that mass surveillance is OK, then that means that anyone could do it. Indeed, that any sensible state should do it.
I’ve been accused of paranoia by making such a suggestion. After all, this is just ‘emergency’ legislation, a mere stop-gap while a proper review of investigatory powers and data gathering goes on. Well, within a few short hours of the passing of DRIP, its echoes were already being heard the other side of the world. Australia’s Attorney-General, George Brandis, used DRIP as an example, seemingly to help push forward his own proposals for data retention. As reported in ZDNet, he said:
‘The question of data retention is under active consideration by the government. I might point out to you as recently as yesterday, the House of Commons passed a new data retention statute. This is very much the way in which western nations are going.’
This is how it goes – and one of the many reasons that the passing of DRIP yesterday was so shameful. If the UK does it, Australia does it. Then New Zealand and Canada. Each new country adds to the weight of the argument. Everyone’s doing it, why not us? If the UK thinks it needs this to keep its citizens safe, we need it too? By the time the long-distant sunset clause kicks in, the end of 2016, every new country that’s added a data retention law to its books, however temporary, will be another reason to extend our own security services’ powers. It’s a vicious or virtuous circle, depending on your perspective.
Of course the normalisation works in different ways too. Less scrupulous nations will be able to say that if the Brits do it, so can we – and we won’t be able to claim that they’re oppressing their population, if we do the same to our own. Further, our security services will require more and more technology to do the surveillance – and the people who develop that technology will be looking for new markets. They may sell them to the Australians – but more likely they’ll find ready markets in governments with less of a tradition of liberalism and democracy. There’s a fine selection of such nations all around the world. They’ll also find markets of other kinds – businesses wishing to use surveillance for their own purposes… whether scrupulous or not. The very criminals that the supporters of DRIP like to scare us with will be looking too – there are so many uses for surveillance that it’s hard to know where to start.
Well, actually, it should have been easy to know where to start. To make a stand. To try to normalise freedom and privacy, respect for citizens fundamental rights and a willingness for open, honest debate on the subject. That, however, would have required rejecting DRIP. We didn’t do that. Shame on us.
Paul Bernal (@PaulbernalUK) is a lecturer in the UEA Law School, specifically in the fields of Information Technology, Intellectual Property and Media Law. His research relates most directly to human rights and the internet, and in particular privacy rights.