As the dust settles on two severely critical reports on the draft Communications Data Bill, two things are clear – the internet is an essential part of Britain’s social and economic future, and the Home Office’s handling of the bill has been deeply damaging.
Rushed tweaking and more sham consultations are not the way forward. If legislation is needed it must be proportionate, properly evidence based and technically certain, particularly on the impact upon British businesses. The consideration of how logging every website visit, email and social media message impinges upon privacy must be far more thorough, with the public fully consulted.
Indeed, the Financial Times dedicated its leader on Wednesday to a call for the bill to be scrapped and re-written, following Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales’ warning the draft Bill would be a disaster for Tech City and businesses.
The Joint Committee, chaired by the Conservative former Home Office Minister peer Lord Blencathra, made itself clear – not only was the bill too sweeping, based upon a ‘fanciful and misleading’ cost benefit analysis, but the process that created it was fundamentally flawed. The report has an entire section dedicated to the Home Office’s failure to consult, while the Intelligence and Security Committee raised concerns about the background information accompanying the bill and the insufficient consultation.
The Intelligence and Security Committee also highlighted the weakness of the case that has been made, saying ‘Parliament and the public will require more information if they are to be convinced.’
To rush ahead with legislation would not only be negligent, jeopardising growth and privacy, but it would be an affront to Parliament. When a Joint Committee says a Bill is not fit for Parliament, they are not asking for a few small changes – it is back to the drawing board.
In written evidence to the Joint Committee, Big Brother Watch outlined several ways that the situation could be improved, some of which would require legislation, others that would not. This was recognised by the committee, who supported our assertion that there is currently a wealth of data not being properly utilised and that a lack of skills and technical resources within the police is already hampering investigations – before £2bn is diverted from police budgets to another grand IT project. Bureaucratic delays in existing legal processes can be sped up.
There are also statutory issues, from the admissibility of intercept evidence in court to the power of the police to ask for data to be collected about specific individuals or specific websites, where proportionate and necessary. We supported such powers in our evidence.
There are clear issues with how the Bill was produced. Thorough industry consultation was non-existent, while the Information Commissioner only saw the draft Bill on the day it was published.
It is no coincidence that the process was overseen by the same civil servant who was responsible for such previous PR successes as the Prevent strategy and the G4S Olympic security contract. Paul Goodman previously used this same website to call for him to be ‘moved on rapidly’ in September 2010 after another debacle.
The way forward must be proper consultation with businesses, technical experts and the public. Everything that can be done that does not require legislation must be pursued vigorously. Any Bill must be thorough, robustly evidenced and proportionate.
The draft Bill failed every one of these tests, and urgency is not a justification for poor law. There is so much work that was not done previously that if there cannot be a bill for several months, so be it.
Parliament and the British public will not be shocked and startled into surrendering hard fought for liberties.