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New Government Bill Would Set Wolves Among The Sheep

Mal Fletcher
Posted 24 April 2013
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'Democracy,' wrote James Bovard, 'must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.'

If proposed new legislation on the tracking of social media conversations is passed in Westminster, British democracy may well move a step closer to this scenario.

The Government's powerful security forces may, at least in the public's perception, become online wolves, ganging up on the humble sheep of the electorate to redefine the cybersphere.

British Home Secretary Theresa May is committed to including a new Communications Data Bill within the Queen's Speech next month.

Cyber-security experts, including top-tier academics from both Cambridge and Oxford Universities, are warning that the measures will undermine the privacy of citizens.

Backbenchers from both wings of the coalition government are also opposed to the Bill, the main thrust of which was first proposed by the previous Labour Government. It was abandoned after an outcry from privacy advocates.

Essentially, the present Bill purports to bring police powers up to date, so that they are in line with the increasingly sophisticated use of the internet by criminals. However, it would allow the security forces to track people's email, web and social media usage.

The proposed legislation would not, at least in its present form, allow police to read the content of messages or emails, but they would be free to track who sent what to whom, and when.

Security forces could then apply for a warrant to read actual content. Presumably, these warrants would be granted relatively readily. (Otherwise what would be the point of having such legislation?) And police or the security forces of GCHQ would be free to target very specific exchanges.

Critics of the Bill say that it is an attempt to foist upon the internet a system of surveillance that was introduced for telephone technology. They say that not enough thought has been given to the unique nature, opportunities and challenges presented by the internet.

Without having been able to read the entire Bill, or its full summary, I foresee at least three problems with the proposed Bill in terms of its social impact.

Speaking to a conference of entrepreneurs in Portugal recently, I shared the remarkable story of Salvatore Iaconesi.

An Italian artist and robotics engineer, Iaconesi was recently diagnosed with brain cancer. He decided to open source his condition by placing all of his medical records online.

He set up a site promoting the idea of an open source cure, inviting people to suggest treatments, or at least ways of managing his condition. Within the first month, he had 200,000 responses, including many from other patients and doctors.

To date, he has received more than 50,000 specific strategies, and medicos from different disciplines are using the site as a networking hub, allowing a wide-ranging trade of ideas about cancer. The site is linked to social media services.

Just as importantly, medicos from different disciplines are using the site as a networking hub, allowing a wide-ranging trade of ideas about cancer. The conversation includes exchanges between practitioners of modern and less conventional forms of medicine.

The Italian government is considering ways of making patients' records more accessible and is watching the project with interest.

Mr. Iaconesi's story shows the potential of what lies ahead as people increasingly use the internet as a platform for mass collaboration on even the most personal of problems.

There is something very liberating about the notion that whatever major setback we face there may be, just a click away, someone who can offer advice or practical support.

One wonders, though, whether people will feel free to share open source personal problems online and discuss them via social media, if they know that security personnel may be watching - especially given the tendency, in these politically correct times, for police to overreact to social media messages.

The case of accountant Paul Chambers is a case in point. He was found guilty of sending a menacing tweet. Frustrated that Robin Hood airport was closed due to snow, he tweeted: 'You've got a week and a bit to get your **** together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high.'

His appeal to the high court was successful and he apologised for his 'silly joke'. Was it an unwise thing to write? Yes, but it was perhaps the type of thing an angry person, running on emotion, might say in an unguarded moment, in private conversation with a friend, tongue-in-cheek.

Surely we'd see many other frivolous cases backing up our already clogged legal system were the security forces given access to our social networking records.

The Chambers case also highlights a second concern with the new proposals, relating to how people use social media. The proposed Bill may be an extension of powers used for tracking telephone calls, but the two media are used in very different ways.

Though they are mainly text-based, social media are used as a form of informal, off-the-cuff conversation. Even a cursory glance at Twitter feeds reveals that people use this and other similar platforms in a stream-of-consciousness way.

We have no problem using social media in this way, provided we know that our musings are going to be taken for the innocuous scribblings they usually are.

In the legal world, the written word is often considered to carry greater weight than the spoken word, but no such distinction exists in people's minds when they send a Facebook message or a tweet.

At that moment, most people are not thinking about nuances of the law. Often, they're not even thinking about the normal rules of social courtesy - people often behave more brazenly when hiding behind the anonymity of social media.

All people see at the moment they tweet is the opportunity for a free exchange of ideas between 'friends' or followers.

Ideas expressed on these platforms are not always well thought-through. Nor are they intended to form a permanent or official record of what an individual thinks on a particular issue.

Of course, this does not excuse clearly libellous remarks. But libel is a good example of how wrongdoing can be dealt with using laws that are already in place and have proven their worth. There is no need to introduce new legislation to deal with online libel.

The third problem with the Bill - and perhaps the most important - is that it would further strain the public trust's in officialdom. This at a time when that trust is already at an all-time low, in the wake of the banking crisis, the MPs' expenses scandal and various other failures within core public institutions.

The Government might argue that the Bill poses no threat to everyday online conversation.

Yet in the public mind it would represent a thin-end-of-the-wedge opportunity for the intrusion of state power into what is presently a largely bureaucracy-free space.

Adding to this unease would be the fact that in recent years various government departments have shown a startling level of incompetence when it comes to storing sensitive personal information.

In more than one instance, data CDs have been misplaced or thrown out with the garbage, where anyone could pick them up. Why do politicians think that we'd be happy to offer bureaucrats access to even more information?

As already mentioned, proposals not unlike those in the new Bill were considered in the latter years of the Labour government, ostensibly in an effort to deal with the growing problem of child pornography and the like. These measures would have given sweeping powers of web censorship to an unelected government minister, Peter Mandelson. 

Thankfully, larger, private ISPs in the UK responded by providing their own filtering mechanisms. For example, BT uses a service known as Cleanfeed, which identifies sites featuring child pornography.

Today, despite the fact that Iran, China, Russia and even, to a degree, the US have moved toward far greater regulation of the internet, the UK is rated as being relatively free of government internet filtering.

As the internet becomes woven into more and more of our daily experience, people are coming to see access to it - and relative freedom within it - as a basic right.

Between November 2009 and February 2010, the BBC World Service conducted a poll among more than 27,000 adults in 26 countries, including 14,000 internet users.

Of the results, the chairman of the polling agency said: 'Despite worries about privacy and fraud, people around the world see access to the internet as their fundamental right. They think the web is a force for good, and most don’t want governments to regulate it.'


For more on this issue, see Mal Fletcher's new book Fascinating Times: A Social Commentary, available now. Click here for more.

What’s your view?

Should Security Forces have increased powers to scrutinise social media?



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