There is a set pattern for speeches from mainstream politicians about the Internet. Start off with a few “isn't it amazing what the kids can do nowadays” generalities to show you are vaguely with it. Then do a nod in the direction of the economic benefits technology can bring, to keep business happy. That leaves you clear to get on to the meat of what you really want to talk about – how the Nettywebz are a Pandora's box of terror, abuse, threats to citizen's rights, and moral dissolution.
So it has proved with the much trailed speeches by the Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper and the LibDem Leader Nick Clegg respectively. In particular, Cooper's speech is so packed with web cliches that it is clear that the Labour top remains fundamentally anti-Internet in its outlook. There are too many lazy conflations to mention, Facebook and NHS data are lumped together for example. She refers to the “digital challenges of the last 12 months” regarding mass surveillance. I have no idea what this means specifically, and I suspect whoever wrote it doesn't either.
To cut through the padding, the heart of what they set out to address, was surveillance in the light of the Snowden revelations. I want to focus on the substance – such as it is – of what they said and proposed, rather than how it was sold to the media.
The fact that they are discussing this at all shows that it is beginning to filter through to politicians that they can't ignore the gravity of the serious breaches of trust that have taken place. That's in no small way thanks to all the work of grassroots digital rights and privacy activists over the months. And of course Edward Snowden himself, whatever Cooper might claim to the contrary. To be fair, this is some kind of progress.
Setting the background, both Cooper and Clegg bring up the state of the debate about the capabilities of the intelligence agencies. The shadow Home secretary claims that debate has “barely begun”. She should not mistake the unwillingness of MPs to hold the state to account for a lack of debate or concern in the wider public. There have been endless column inches, each new detail in the Guardian minutely examined in social media, a Pirate Party petition with 10s of 1000s of signatures, demonstrations, public meetings, a law case launched with crowd funding, an Edward Snowden mural in Manchester in the vein of what you expect to see in Belfast for heavens sake...
Clegg by contrast accepts there has been discussion, but describes the debate as “caricatured in a way that I believe is neither helpful, nor allows us to make progress”, that it has been conducted purely in terms of “good and evil”. I am not sure who he has in mind here, it sounds like an attack on the Guardian, the Open Rights Group, Big Brother Watch and others. At no point have any of us claimed that the raft of intelligence programmes were “solely for the purposes of social control” as the DPM puts it. It is him who is guilty of caricaturing the debate here. All any of us have been trying to do, for months now, is to set out what the situation is given what the PRISM, TEMPORA, XKEYSCORE, Optic Nerve (etc etc) revelations actually contain. The Guardian, Greenwald and others have set out in sober detail the functioning of a surveillance state, for all that Mr Clegg would have it otherwise.
Wading past quotes from John Stuart Mill and all the rest, between the two of them the concrete proposals are as follows:
- Overhaul the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) – strengthen technological competence, appoint a chair from an opposition party.
- Overhaul the system of independent oversight commissioners, consider a post of Inspector General of the intelligence services.
- More public oversight – including media interviews and transparency about the role.
- Review of RIPA – including warrants and the implications of servers on foreign territory.
- Overhaul the ISC – increase numbers, appoint a chair from an opposition party, set budgets for 5 years.
- Overhaul the system of independent oversight commissioners, appoint a post of Inspector General of the intelligence services.
- Initiate a RUSI expert panel in to the principles behind intelligence gathering.
- A web portal on the work of the intelligence services: surveillance.gov.uk .
- Changes made to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal which investigates complaints against the intrusive use of powers.
So 9 things between them, or in fact about 7 and a quarter, as 2 key proposals from both of them overlap, in strikingly similar language.
Both call for changes to the ISC. What's noticeable is their chief concern is public perception. Clegg talks about the ISC persuading the public that it is capable of “holding the agencies' feet to the fire”, Cooper's reasoning for an opposition chair is so as not to appear to be “an extension of the government”. No, what would help is a chair that can do the job properly. If they both think that Rifkind can't hack it they should have the guts to say so. But there is nothing proposed that will persuade the public that the ISC can make a material difference whoever is in charge. As for making sure the committee is able to draw on technical knowhow, it shows what a disastrous state the whole system is in that basically “perhaps we should know what we are talking about” even needs to be said.
Much of the rest is about packaging too. Commissioners, inspectors, or tsars it's all much of a muchness. More interviews, well that's just better PR. A web portal which is not an unreasonable idea, does risk being a propaganda channel, particularly if you call it surveillance.gov.uk . I doubt that it would include in Optic Nerve FAQs: “Can you see my knackers/minge? Probably, yes.”
The idea of the right of appeal on Investigatory Powers Tribunal decisions is good, but is pretty meaningless in practice without reforming the legal framework which we so constantly have been told is being rigidly adhered to.
This just leaves 2 ideas between the 2 of them that might actually lead to something being done about mass surveillance rather than responding to or spinning what has taken place.
Clegg announced an “expert panel” to look at the principles that govern the use of surveillance and “where necessary” recommend new legislation. This is to be under the wing of the defence thinktank Royal United Services Institute, which proudly displays endorsements from General Petraeus and Tony Blair on its website. Still, the move itself is positive in as far as the chief concern we have had has always been about the principles driving forward programmes like PRISM. But the reality is, as the DPM admits, his panel does not have broad political backing and will not be able to do anything before the next general election at the earliest.
Just one of the proposals, Cooper's call to revisit RIPA holds of any kind of real hope of actual helpful results. We have been calling for concrete measures to revise RIPA since 2012. But again, Cooper holds out no specifics as to how this review will be carried out or by who.
Crucially, neither Clegg nor Cooper set out the direction of travel they would like to see for the RUSI panel or the RIPA review. For all the rhetoric about protecting democracy and individuals, they simply will not commit to dismantling the surveillance state that has been proliferating under both of their watches. Cooper fails to acknowledge that RIPA and so much of what has happened is the poisonous legacy of the Blair era. Equally, Clegg neatly avoids dealing with the promises he made with the end of the Snoopers' Charter. Specifically, what capabilities over and above PRISM, TEMPORA and 'Mastering the Internet' did he and his advisers anticipate being unleashed by the Communications Data Bill? And given the visits he talks about making to the intelligence agencies was he aware of these capabilities before the Guardian reports?
Put simply Labour and the LibDems want to shuffle chairs and keep up appearances. We want an end to mass surveillance. There must be a concrete commitment to comb through and change all of the terror legislation which has opened up the door to this unprecedented intrusion. Any surveillance has to be specific to individuals and under court order. The principles of proportionality need reaffirming. There must be new balances strengthening data protection, the right to encryption and practically enshrining privacy rights. There must be an open enquiry in to the very capabilities themselves, how they relate to any legal frameworks and how they were sanctioned. We must stop stalling on data protection on the European level. Protection for whistleblowers must be set out. We should offer Edward Snowden asylum, perhaps now more than ever given the situation with Russia.
Clegg opened his speech saying “it is vital... we work tirelessly and unremittingly to sustain and support public trust in the security services and secure widespread political consent for their activities and reach.” Indeed. But I'm clear Mr Clegg, they do not have my trust. They do not have my consent. I don't see this as a radical position. I see this as a logical position knowing what we know now. That can not change until real action is taken in parliament to protect our liberties.