Let me tell you a little story.
Once upon a time there was this big nasty Labour government who loved nothing better than to extend the power of the state and its power to spy on people's lives. They had a brilliant idea to spy on everyone's email and internet use so a police officer could see anything anyone was up to online without even needing to go to a judge to get a warrant. But fortunately there were these brave people called the Lib Dems who stood up to Labour - and with them stood some of the tories and all the civil liberties groups. And, despite everything, they won. The plans to monitor the internet (like other thriving, open democracies - such as China and Iran - do) were scrapped. The End.
That's the story Lib Dems have always been able to tell ourselves about the idiotic idea of monitoring anything and everything that takes place online. And, now we're in government, that kind of draconian, authoritarian, police-state nonsense is meant to be gone for good.
But, unfortunately, tories are tories. So Mrs May has brought back the same plans that Labour proposed a few years ago and the same plans that the Lib Dems and Tories opposed at the time. Well, I say "the same". A few things have changed in the plans but essentially the aim of the proposals is the same. And that's because the plans haven't come out of thin air - they're the same recycled plans, drawn up at the urging of the security services, that the last government used.
Just to summarise, this is what the proposals actually are. The security services and the police will have the power to demand internet service providers (ISPs) show them, in real time, what someone is doing online. ISPs will also have to record and store what people are doing online in case the police ask to see it. If the police suspect you of being a criminal or a terrorist (that is, they don't have proof, just a suspicion) then, without a warrant, they will be able to monitor, in real time, every facebook message you send online, every email, every website you visit, every skype call or instant message. Now, they won't be able to actually read the contents of each message, they'll just be able to see who the sender was and who receives it. So, if Mr Terrorist Suspect sends a one-of happy birthday message to an old school chum, that said school chum could then have all of their internet use monitored because they're in contact with a suspect. Wonderful. The real life equivalent of the proposals is to allow the police to follow you around 24/7, standing right behind you to note down who you talk to, but not listening to the details of the conversation.
Though, given that to do this the ISPs will have to open every single message sent online in order to write down who sent it and where it's going to. And then each of them will have to store this data on databases the law will force them to set up. Which won't be very secure and which will be very expensive - with the cost passed on to you, dear customer.
But what's sickening about these proposals is the way that members of the Lib Dem leadership have either been shamefully silent or openly defending the proposals.
For example, Lynne Featherstone sent out an email to all our members (over 24 unrestful hours after the story was first leaked to the press) where she basically said that there's nothing to worry about because:
a) Labour are bad and we are good.
b) There won't be a big centralised database.
c) These proposals are better than Labour's proposals.
d) Trust us, we wouldn't let you down.
e) This is only updating existing powers anyway.
f) The security services say they really, really need this information - even though they can't tell us why.
To which the response of many far, far more knowledgeable people than me (including all the civil liberties campaigning organisations) have said:
a) Being better on civil liberties than Labour is hardly difficult.
b) There'll just be lots of decentralised databases instead - we feel so much better.
c) Not by much - and what we have already goes too far so extending those powers even slightly is unacceptable.
d) After all, you've never let us down on tuition fees or the NHS or welfare reform or legal aid or control orders or ending the retention of the DNA of innocent people...
e) See c).
f) The security services always want more power - but unless they can tell us why they need it then it's your job to defend civil liberties as the default response.
g) Why the jumping jesus do these proposals mean the police won't need a warrant to monitor people?
h) What happens when these powers were abused - a la RIPA being used by councils to monitor people 24/7 to try and catch out school catchment area infringements?
i) All the technical experts (e.g. people who manage internet networks for a living) say your plans are impossible to implement.
Additionally, here is what should be the default liberal response to all proposals of this sort:
Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.
Pitt the Younger 1783
Now, from what I've seen online, there's only been one Lib Dem member in favour of these proposals. Everyone else has been staunchly against them. As Lib Dems we might disagree on everything else but we will all fight to the death to defend freedom.
As one person said:
This is a red line for me – if it’s crossed, I’m resigning.That seems to be the view of a lot of Lib Dems - I know that for me this is definitely a red line. I could stay a party member after tuition fees and the Welfare Reform Bill because I still believe the party can be changed. But if these proposals are implemented with the backing of Lib Dem MPs then it will be obvious, beyond any doubt, that the party is no longer liberal and that it is no longer democratic. And a hell of a lot of my fellow Lib Dems will take the same attitude. In fact, for the first time in decades the party membership is completely united - in their dismay at the proposals the government is preparing.
For example, just look at the following people, all of whom express their dismay and the problems with the proposals much better than I can:
These people, between them, represent a cross section of the party and a good few of them know full well what they're talking about when it comes to technical matters. If it's a choice between trusting them and trusting Lynne Featherstone, Nick Clegg and the government then you can be damn sure I won't be in Nick Clegg's camp.
Basically, these proposals are WRONG. And you will not find me in any party that supports them. And I think the same can be said about the rest of the Lib Dem membership - especially given that we passed a conference motion against these proposals just three weeks ago.
If the government tries to pass these proposals with the support of the Lib Dem leadership then I predict one of two things will happen. The first option is that we end up looking for a new set of leaders for our party. The second is that our leaders find that their party has left them.
The only bright spot in all of this is that some MPs have already spoken out against the proposals. But unless we Lib Dems start to see proper movement from all of our MPs soon then there will be hell to pay.
Of course, even if the government doesn't really intend to spy on its own citizens, is the alternative explanation for these proposals any better?
|Hat tip to Kevin in a Lib Dem facebook group|