Labour and digital liberty

By Dave Levy

One aspects of May’s response to the Manchester and London attacks has been to blame the internet and require more regulation, in this case probably to restrict free speech. I find it hard to understand how the intelligence services could be granted any more powers: since the passage of the Investigatory Powers Act the security state has been implementing a surveillance infrastructure of which any totalitarian regime would be proud and in the process undermining the rights to free speech, of association, privacy and the right to a fair trial.

Enough is enough! Labour in Parliament must defend the rule of law and the rights of citizens.

I suggest that the most compact and complete statement defining good internet rights is the European Digital Rights (EDRi) Charter. They have 10 demands which I classify as rights of citizenship, including a right of equality before the law, rights of privacy and rights to participate in intellectual property settlements.

  • The rights of access, i.e. the right to use the internet to participate in democracy include, transparency, access to information, unrestricted right to go-online, multi-stakeholderism and open source software. Equality before the law requires unrestricted access and a prohibition on the privatisation and automation of justice.
  • The right to privacy covers data protection and privacy laws, including the right of freedom from automated processing, freedom from general monitoring and access to online anonymity and encryption.
  • Equity in intellectual property law requires a fair copyright law that considers the interests and rights of fans and citizens. A prohibition on the automation and privatisation of justice is also required to ensure equality before the law.

Human Rights have been established through the UN & European Charters of Human Rights and made law in the UK via the Human Rights Act. These laws enforce equal and fair citizenship. Some are tools to defend rights: the right to a fair trial, the right to organise, freedom of association. Others are necessary for freedom to exist: free speech, privacy, right to a family life. Digital Rights are closely aligned to the real world rights; if we give up these rights on the internet, we lose them in the real world too.

Another dimension of the attack on civil rights is the cuts in legal aid and the shortening of the elapsed time before a judicial review can be launched. The constant attacks on the legitimacy of the HRA also undermines our ability to ensure our rights are effectively defended. Labour’s manifesto promises on these two issues were unequivocal.

Amongst digital liberty campaigners, there is some debate about the limits of free speech. As socialists and democrats we need to recognise that we have a duty to suppress hate speech as much as we support free speech.

Governments of all colours have often overreacted to terrorist events in all circumstances restricting citizens’ rights in a bogus attempt to increase security. They have a need to be seen to be doing something. The current political context i.e. Brexit and the Tory’s antipathy to the European Convention on Human Rights challenge the second pillar of democracy, that of the rule of, and equal access to the law.

Having implemented the most draconian surveillance powers certainly in a liberal democracy, I wonder what more can be done. However, the Tories are planning to implement new forms of censorship.

But surely, counter-terrorism?

Counter-terrorism laws are always an overreach and always used in unexpected ways. If you give police powers, they will use them, from the abolition of juries, the restriction of peremptory challenge, anonymous police witnesses, secret evidence, police applied penalties (ASBOs & TPIMs) & weakening of habeas corpus. Recent counter-terrorism laws and policies have begun to target so-called non-violent extremism.

The UK’s counter-terrorism strategy is called CONTEST and consists of four sub-strategies, Pursue, Prevent, Protect & Prepare. Much of pursue and prevent is completely undermined by the simultaneous cuts in police and intelligence agency numbers, while protect and prepare are undermined by cuts to the Fire Brigades and NHS. CONTEST ignores the political context but lays the seed for the informer state by mandating that public service workers (i.e. teachers) inform on potential radicals. The foolish transition from active community policing to computerised surveillance is also undermined by the police cuts as when the short-staffed intelligence services get an answer from the computers, they have no-one to check it with.

May is going to come to Parliament and ask for more powers to spy on us and censor our conversations.

Labour must oppose these proposals and recognise that the end game of the security services would seem to be a silent surveillance/informer society of which totalitarians of both left and right would be proud.

Enough is enough.

• Dave Levy is a Labour Party activist and GC member in Lewisham Deptford, and a member of the Open Rights Group supporters’ council. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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