The uproar surrounding government plans to extend the state’s ability to ‘snoop’ on the public’s email and social media communications will certainly prove damaging to the Conservatives- but it poses political hazards to the leaders of the other parties as well.
The proposed legislation- expected to be unveiled during next month’s Queen’s Speech- will allow authorities real time access to internet traffic, enabling officials to determine who you contact online and what sites you visit.
The government will inevitably have to weather a storm of protest from the powerful civil liberties lobby, who have an impressive campaigning record when it comes to citizen’s rights. In September 2010, the pressure group Liberty scored a major victory when the government announced it was to launch an independent review into Britain’s extradition laws.
On this weekend’s government statement, Liberty’s press team announced that:
“The Coalition agreement explicitly promised to ‘end unnecessary data retention’ and restore our civil liberties. Do they still believe it? At the very least we need less secret briefing and more public consultation if this promise is to be abandoned.”
The Coalition leadership will have a PR disaster on their hands if this policy becomes the focus of a public campaign. Characters like Shami Chakrabarti, Liberty’s Director, are impressive television performers and could embarrass ministers on the media circuit.
The plans also open the Tories up to accusations of another u-turn. A Conservative pamphlet published in 2009 entitled ‘Reversing the Rise of the Surveillance State’ savaged Labour’s record on web surveillance and promised that “A Conservative government will take a fundamentally different approach…[by recording] fewer personal details.” Those MPs who had a hand writing this will be angry that the government frontbench is now making a mockery of their promises, as will those party members who look to the Tories as the ‘small state’ party who traditionally keep their noses out of private people’s business.
For the Liberal Democrats, the outlook is even worse. Earlier this month, the party’s spring conference voted unanimously in favour of a motion to uphold and extend British civil liberties, with Dr. Jenny Wood arguing that:
“We don’t give police blanket permission to enter every home in the land without a warrant, just on the off-chance a crime is being committed inside, so why should we monitor the communications of every citizen, just in case they do something wrong?”
The proposed legislation looks set to push Lib Dem members to the limit. In a sign that the party recognises the threat to its image, Lynne Featherstone emailed all members today reassuring them that “The content of your communications is currently, and will always be, protected by tough rules.” However, she fell short of admitting that the legislation will massively expand the government’s ability to monitor who you talk to and what sites you visit.
Just about the only thing left the Liberal Democrats are recognised to stand up for is civil liberties, so if a policy like this is mishandled, it could undermine their ‘nice party’ image for good.
However, the problems facing the Coalition parties do not give Labour a reason to celebrate- and, unsurprisingly, the party’s response to the plans has been relatively muted. Yvette Cooper blogged today that “National security and personal privacy are too important to be left to rumours and rows,” but did not dare claim the government was violating civil liberties. After all, New Labour’s record on such matters is patchy to say the least, and current media coverage of the plans are quick to refer to the party’s own scheme in 2008 to track phones, texts, emails and internet use through a central database.
The party would be well advised to stay quiet on this issue and let the media do the work of attacking the government for it, or risk cries of ‘hypocrisy’ rising from the government benches.
Ultimately, what this issue demonstrates is that the public gets agitated when a government publicly announces it will increase surveillance over its own people. We hear on a regular basis how autocratic regimes in Syria and Iran violate the rights of their citizens by invading their internet privacy, and congratulate ourselves that we live in a country where this doesn’t happen. This legislation will not put our government on a similar footing as these dictatorships, but it certainly makes it look like it could in the future. Expect a storm ahead.
Louie Woodall is Assistant Editor of the Young Fabians Blog
You can read more about Liberty in the latest edition of Anticipations, which features an essay by Shami Chakrabarti