Radicalising the Internet – The Politics of DRIP

Loz Kaye's picture

Apparently there is a national emergency going on. Not that you would particularly notice, as our elected representatives have been as busy Tweeting snarky comments about the reshuffle as actually debating the future of the communications of every person in the country. And indeed beyond, if Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (DRIP) bill goes through.

In the short time the public at large has had to see the what is proposed in DRIP much of the argument has focused around its legal intentions. Its main stated aim is to address the Court of Justice of the EU ruling that blanket surveillance undermined the fundamental right to a private life. Not address it by actually discussing the court's concrete objections mind you, but by sidestepping them instead. NGOs and legal experts have also pointed out, despite the claims to the contrary, it will expand surveillance powers and the scope of communications to be kept.

But clearly there have been political aims too. The most obvious one is to force support of mass surveillance on all the big three parties. That's evident in the whipping across the board. It is a deliberate show of power, and an intended warning to all of us that question the erosion of our civil liberties.

The invoking of an “emergency” is intended to stifle dissent. It casts anyone who even questions DRIP at best as naïve, at worst as a deliberate supporter of terrorists and abusers. To any reasonable person emergency means both something exceptional and urgent. In fact the implications of the ECJ ruling were perfectly clear way back in April, and the emergency is set to last for two and a half years.

DRIP also rescues the classic spin line from the intelligence community whenever they are asked about blanket surveillance that all their activities are in a “strict legal framework”. Surely the ECJ ruling cast doubt on that. The bill allows the misdirection exercise to continue. After all, GCHQ have resolutely refused to say that TEMPORA, XKEYSCORE, OPTIC NERVE and the rest are proportionate, moral, or right.

As Adrian Short put it Labour do like to “keep their hand in” on opposition every now and again. So there has been some attempt to at least look like they are doing their job with Yvette Cooper tabling some amendments. But as these don't deal with the actual concerns we have all been raising, it is for the sake of appearances only.

For the Lib Dems, it is now evident how irrelevant their repeating of the mantra “we stopped the Snoopers' Charter / it's not a Snoopers' Charter” is. That stopped being relevant with the very first Snowden revelations. As with other policy areas they make much of that they stop the Tories' worst excesses. The wider public sees it differently, they are there as a fig leaf to hide those very excesses.

Even if the likes of Dr Huppert are right and that in real terms DRIP makes no material change to the surveillance regime in the UK, that is to miss the point entirely.

The biggest damage from this bill will be the way it was rammed through parliament in a week. It was a stitch up between the three main parties behind closed doors. Clearly it was being discussed in the week up to the announcement of the bill. But not involving civil society or even MPs who take a keen interest in privacy and surveillance. The hypocrisy is breath taking. The powers that be can track our every call, but hide what they are doing in secrecy.

Only 49 MPs opposed the rushed timetable. A timetable that meant it was all but impossible to have a meaningful response from MPs, even from the ones who do take their constituents seriously. That does not mean that many people haven't tried, from all parts of the political spectrum. On Monday even one of the Twitter accounts associated with Anonymous was urging UK citizens to contact their members of Parliament. It's telling that Anonymous seem more concerned about democratic engagement than our MPs.

All of this has yet again left a very bad taste in the mouth. The sense of burning resentment that was created by the fast tracking of the Digital Economy Act in the dying days of the Brown government was huge in the digital rights community. Personally, it was what changed me in to someone active in politics. But that resentment will be as nothing compared to DRIP. Resentment can be galvanising. But more often it is corrosive and dangerous.

During the last few days rumours and conspiracy have flourished. There have been many accusations that the passage of DRIP was deliberately timed with the government reshuffle to bury it in the cut-price soap opera of Westminster comings and goings. Whether this is true or not, the fact that people are willing to believe the worst is entirely the fault of the government and the Labour party.

Drip by drip , confidence is ebbing away from our political system.

I have only ever wanted to show people that involving yourself in the democratic process is the way to effect change. That we can have power in politics if we assume some responsibility. But how can I keep on appealing to people, especially the young, to get involved, if the public is so ignored and treated with contempt?

Over the last few weeks I have seen digital rights and privacy activists say they have been 'radicalised' by this Government's attitude. They are half joking, of course. But if they are half joking they are also half serious. Far from protecting us, the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats have stoked real anger at the same time as taking away democratic routes to do anything about it. That is dangerous. That is a real emergency for our society.