The government’s proposals for extending online monitoring, published today, are not a happy read. There have been some welcome, but relatively small, changes from what Theresa May was pushing for earlier in the year, such as the concession that any expanded monitoring powers will not be available to local councils, who were at the forefront of many of the previous problems of snooping powers being misused and overused.
But the most important – and most welcome – aspect is not the content of the proposals but that they are simply that. What was published today is not a Bill that is being sent through Parliament. Instead, thanks to work from Liberal Democrats such as Julian Huppert and Lynne Featherstone, accompanied by grassroots pressure and lobbying from outside the party, it is a draft that will now go through an extended period of pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation.
One aspect of pre-legislative scrutiny that usually makes it very effective is its cross-party nature, which means issues have to be really argued through in detail on their merits and points have to persuade people coming at an issue from a variety of different political viewpoints. Given Labour’s record on online monitoring, that is less reassuring than usual in this case and it means the choice of specific individuals involved in the pre-legislative scrutiny is all the more important.
That, on the Liberal Democrats side, leads to a second piece of significant welcome news, for the party will be putting forward Julian Huppert from the MPs and Paul Strasburger from the Lords. If you have read this far, I suspect Julian is very familiar to you but Paul may well be less so. He is an excellent choice as he both has a background in IT and strong liberal instincts. When I’ve discussed this issue with him, he sounds as questioning and as liberal as Julian. That is a good sign.