“Good news! We’re taking one of New Labour’s laws that we opposed and extending it.” Doesn’t quite work as a message, does it? But in that stripped down cruel simplicity, it explains why so many Liberal Democrats are angry today about the news to do with the government’s plans for extending online monitoring.
Whether it is because people explicitly remember the party’s long opposition to much of RIPA and other measures during New Labour’s time in office, or because of a more subconscious and subliminal sense of dislike of what the civil liberties rules have been in the past, doesn’t really matter. The net effect is the same: telling people that rules they don’t really like are being extended isn’t good news. It’s bad news, no matter how logical the extension might be.
There is good news in all of this. Despite another big push by the security services and assorted allies, the big database of all our emails, texts and other electronic communications which Labour toyed with has stayed dead.
So too has the idea of giving them easy access to the content of the messages we send electronically (or at least mostly dead, bearing in mind the technical questions I blogged about previously).
But the idea of extending existing RIPA powers to a wider set of communications founders if you aren’t that happy with RIPA. I suspect the understandable focus on the two points above means people have taken their eye off the ball a bit when it comes to appreciating the problem with the ‘but we’re just sensibly modernising RIPA’ message.
What is more, the extension of those powers is neither in the Conservative manifesto nor will it save money – the two reasons often and rightly used to explain why Liberal Democrats in government are not simply doing everything the party would wish.
There are neither the Parliamentary votes nor the Treasury funds to deliver an ideal Lib Dem program. Yet neither of those explanations apply in this case. (A point well made in a different way by Alex Wilcock.)
Nor have events changed in some dramatic way justify a rethinking of this sort. If anything, events since the general election and the Coalition Agreement have cast further doubt on RIPA. Think what has come out with the Leveson inquiry and associated media reports. We now know far more about the widespread culture of abusing the current regulations in order for journalists to snoop on the public in search of a story. Not just occasionally, but on a regular and widespread scale.
In fact, the more you dig into what uses are made of current legal powers, the more questions that come up about how well they are used. For example, did you know that Google rejects over a third of the requests made to it by the UK law enforcement agencies to hand over data? Either Google is indulging in widespread obstruction to the fight against serious crime or it is being showered with unnecessary requests. The lack of even briefings from anonymous government sources claiming the former, suggests the latter is the truth.
All of which illustrates why RIPA needs reform.
Will RIPA get changed in the right way? Actually, I think there is a good chance it will do, as that is the message from Liberal Democrat insiders in Whitehall. They are busy working on what changes the party should be getting made to RIPA. Some related victories have already been secured, as Julian Huppert has pointed out:
It’s clear to me that what we want is more safeguards, not more powers for the state to keep data. We have already killed off some of the obviously illiberal proposals that have been floating around. The idea that if you send or receive an encrypted message you should be legally required to give the state the key is completely gone…
There still may not be a Bill at all in the Queen’s speech. That would be my preference. But if there is one, it must be one that increases the current safeguards not that just feeds the powers of the state. Strong safeguards are critical, they are the very essence of our civil liberties and no liberal can support any state surveillance without them.
The big risk is that it becomes a matter of too little, too late, securing a few changes to legislation while the wider policy and political battles are lost, especially if the party’s message continues, as it was in Nick Clegg’s TV interview today, to be about there being no database but an extension to RIPA.
It’s not an extension of RIPA we need, it’s a major reform of it. Knowing that privately is not enough; it needs to be said publicly too.