Draconian Bill is Serious Threat to Civil Liberties

05 Nov 2016
The Tory Investigatory Powers Bill stands to breach some of our fundamental rights and will impinge upon proper journalism – we need to unite against it, writes DIANE ABBOTT for The Morning Star

This Tory government is introducing a slew of policing and crime legislation which infringes on fundamental civil liberties.
Unfortunately, there has been a tendency in government for some while to believe that it simply has to prefix draconian legislation with the words “terrorist” or “organised crime” or “cyber crime” for the proposed laws to be nodded through. The Labour Party is supportive of legislation which matches the evolution of the methods of criminals and others. Our members in both Houses of Parliament have worked to improve Investigatory Powers Bill (IP Bill) and have secured key concessions from the government. But the IP Bill is still not well targeted. It is too widely drawn and may actually fail to meet its stated objectives.
This Bill matters to ordinary people. It is one of the few Bills of its type to be opposed by the trade union movement outright. The TUC Congress in September passed a motion opposing the Bill outright for two important reasons.
The first is that the Bill, if passed, would impose a duty on all organisations, including voluntary organisations such as trade unions, to hand over the data they hold on their members to the law officers or security services or to a host of other public agencies. The second reason is that the NUJ has championed the rights of journalists to protect their sources, which would be fatally undermined by this Bill. This last point is not a defence of journalists to write whatever they like without any reference to the facts, which is often the experience of working people, whether it relates to Orgreave, to Hillsborough or to the riots following the killing of Mark Duggan. The British press has not covered itself in glory in either of Jeremy Corbyn’s labour leadership victories.
The provisions of the IP Bill infringe on proper journalism, where stories are uncovered and where the powerful are held accountable. The role of whistleblowers is crucial in these circumstances and it is they who need the protections of journalistic sources. But it would be a simple matter for the protection of journalistic sources to be breached. A police officer, or anyone else who is allowed to bulk access this data, would only need to establish who the journalist has been in contact with at a hospital, at a ministry, or at an outsourced agency in order to expose them as a whistleblower, killing the story, leading to intimidation, or even loss of a job.
One of the bizarre aspects of the Bill is that it has a predecessor, the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) that is currently the subject of a legal challenge at the European Court of Justice. One of the principal sponsors of that legal challenge is Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson. The indications are from the interim opinion in the European Court that large sections of DRIPA will be struck down. The IP Bill is much more draconian still and, if it passes in its current form, is almost certain to face legal challenge with a strong likelihood of success.
As it stands, it would allow a large number of public bodies to access your data on their own authority, without any proper reference to a judge. They can bulk access this data, keep it for up to 12 months and share it with umpteen other agencies, including any overseas agencies they choose. None of this is confined to terrorism or even “serious crime.” Minor crime is also included and data can be accessed solely on the basis of suspicion. There is also no right to notification of the target nor any right for the service provider to be informed of the nature or use of the data collected.
No wonder the trade union movement remains opposed to the Bill, along with campaign organisations, the press and civil liberties groups.
There is also some irony in its content. The Chancellor Philip Hammond has recently said he will make an exception to austerity and provide £2 billion in order to combat cyber attacks. However, the terms of the Bill dictate to all organisations, including public bodies, private companies and voluntary organisations like trade unions that they keep an “open door” to their networks that can be accessed by all the law officers, security agencies and the public bodies authorised by the IP Bill. From everything we know, this is also likely to be an easily opened door to the hackers too.
Jobs may also be at risk. A very large number of big internet-based companies, some of the global giants of the internet and social media are extremely anxious about their operations in this country, where together they employ thousands of people. The provisions of this Bill are so sweeping and the safeguards virtually non-existent that they are almost certain to fall foul of EU regulations. As with other industries, firms operating in this country can easily function in the EU with the use of a passport, in this case a “data passport.” This verifies that they are operating in a jurisdiction which offers sufficient legal and oversight protections for the data that they handle. The IP Bill is so draconian and offers so few legal safeguards that the data passport could easily be withdrawn. If that occurs, the firms will have big decisions to make and jobs could be lost. Altogether, the IP Bill in its current form presents more problems than solutions. It appears to infringe some fundamental liberties. It may even be largely struck down in the courts. It could cost us jobs. Ordinary people are the main victims of serious crime and of terrorism and need protection from both. But this Bill doesn’t seem to fit the bill.

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