“Anybody who is against this bill is putting politics before people’s lives.” So Theresa May informed readers of the Sun on Monday, as she defended the extension of surveillance powers contained in the Communications Data Bill. Her comments appeared alongside photos of murdered policewomen Nicola Hughes and Fiona Bone, the tabloid portraying the Home Secretary as a champion of our police force and of the victims of crime.
The Bill is back in the news because the Joint Committee tasked with reviewing its contents is due to report shortly, and the Intelligence and Security Committee is also expected to give its verdict. Mrs May's combative remarks suggest that she relishes the fight with the Liberal Democrats that these reports will inevitably unleash. Defending the powers in the Bill, the Home Secretary said that anyone opposing it would be siding with “criminals, terrorists and paedophiles.”
Well, I'm not a big fan of Nick Clegg but I'd hesitate to describe him as the paedo's friend; Mrs May must feel very sure of her ground. Using flesh-creeping language reminiscent of the former Metropolitan police chief, Sir Ian Blair, when he persuaded the last Labour government to introduce wider surveillance powers and 42-day detention, she declared that “people who say they’re against this bill need to look victims of serious crime, terrorism and child sex offences in the eye and tell them why they’re not prepared to give the police the powers they need to protect the public.”
This is strong stuff, and it certainly needled David Davis, who later raised a point of order in the Commons, criticising the Home Secretary for “traducing” opponents of the Bill. It seems the Home Secretary has calculated that if the Joint Committee produces a highly critical report which rejects large sections of the Bill, the public will be on her side, not Nick Clegg's.
Whose side are you on? Let's pause for a moment to consider what the Bill proposes. It replaces the existing regime of data collection (put in place from 2001 onwards, originally in the form of a telecoms code of practice, and extended in 2007 and 2009 by the implementation of EU directives for mandatory retention of data relating to internet access) and it extends the range of telecoms data to be stored by providers for 12 months. That will now include messages sent on social media, webmail and Skype as well as emails and mobile calls; the data to be stored will cover time, duration and recipient of communications.
As well as the police and intelligence services and the Serious Organised Crime Agency, HM Revenue and Customs will also have access to the stored data. The Bill requires internet and telecoms providers to comply with detailed standards and techniques for data storage, and facilitate access to that data, making it available to the police or other authorised agencies in a manner that enables them to examine it quickly and easily. The Home Office estimates the cost of this retention and inspection regime at £1.8 billion over the next ten years.
Julian Huppert, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman who has been sitting on the Joint Committee, has already voiced his concerns about the Bill, believing its powers to be much too wide; he has vowed to stop it becoming law in the present, draft, form. The Committee has certainly heard from plenty of witnesses with serious objections to the Bill. Not surprisingly, these have included journalists and writers such as the Observer's Henry Porter, who campaigned vociferously against the Labour government's constant attempts to invade personal privacy in the name of counter-terrorism, and who has been dismayed by the coalition's readiness to take up where Labour left off.
But the objections run much wider than the likes of Mr Porter. The Government's Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, whose role is to uphold individual data privacy and oversee the enforcement of our personal data protection, told the Committee that the draft Bill did not provide his office with the necessary powers or resources to regulate the new system. Damningly, he also warned that serious criminals and international terrorists, to whose activities the Bill was presumably intended to apply, would be the least likely to be affected, as they would already be avoiding the main ISPs, instead using offshore providers and encrypted messages. The Bill would only capture the “incompetent criminal and accidental anarchist.” His point was underlined by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who warned that international websites like Wikipedia would move to encrypt all their connections with British ISPs, because of privacy concerns.
Last week William Hague joined with the Prime Minister in rejecting the regulation of the press by the state. He suggested that such regulation would adversely affect Britain's world status as a defender of freedom. His warning is said to have stiffened David Cameron's resolve to reject Leveson's call for statutory regulation. But what do Mr Hague, and indeed the Prime Minister, make of the criticisms levelled against the Communications Data Bill by the inventor of the internet? Sir Tim Berners-Lee has expressed strong concerns about the Bill, declaring that if the government gives itself powers to monitor individual's internet use it will damage Britain's reputation as an upholder of web freedom.
Clearly Mrs May does not agree. As she tells the Sun “unless you are a criminal, then you’ve nothing to worry about from this new law. This isn’t a snoopers’ charter, it’s a criminals’ nightmare.” But the worry voiced by many IT experts is that the vast bank of data which must now be stored will be a hacker's dream. The British government and public services have an appalling record of data protection. It is ironic that just as the Leveson report condemns the leaking of personal information by the police to the press, the government is proposing massively to expand the personal data available to agencies of the state.
Nick Clegg's refusal to support the Prime Minister on press regulation is, in my view, unwise and illiberal. But if he now stands his ground against the Home Secretary, when she stamps her kitten heels and calls him a risk to public safety, he will be on the side not only of freedom but also common sense. This Bill is far too wide in its scope, a threat to personal privacy, and is unlikely to serve its ostensible purpose. Parliament should not be bullied into supporting it.