A bill of digital rights
It’s taken some time – a surprisingly long time – but at last we’re seeing a political reaction from Britain’s civil society organisation’s to Edward Snowden’s revelations. Six organisations have launched a campaign that our security laws should be governed by six principles that are closely linked to the principles that underpin our notions of democratic government.
The six principles
It’s worth setting them out here, at least in summary form – they can be found in full on the campaign website.
1. NO SURVEILLANCE WITHOUT SUSPICION
Mass surveillance must end. Surveillance is only legitimate when it is targeted, authorised by a warrant, and is necessary and proportionate.
2. TRANSPARENT LAWS, NOT SECRET LAWS
The Government is using secret agreements and abusing archaic laws. We need a clear legal framework governing surveillance to protect our rights. All intelligence activities must be properly legislated and subject to parliamentary and public scrutiny.
3. JUDICIAL NOT POLITICAL AUTHORISATION
Ministers should not have the power to authorise surveillance. All surveillance should be sanctioned by an independent judge on a case-by-case basis.
4. EFFECTIVE DEMOCRATIC OVERSIGHT
Parliament has failed to hold the intelligence agencies to account. Parliamentary oversight must be independent of the executive, properly resourced to conduct investigations, and able to command public confidence through regular reporting and public sessions.
5. THE RIGHT TO REDRESS
Innocent people have had their rights violated. Everyone should have the right to challenge surveillance in an open court. The same approach should apply to the disclosure of material and publication of judgments and reasoning.
6. A SECURE WEB FOR ALL
Weakening the general security and privacy of communications systems erodes protections for everyone, and undermines trust in digital services. State surveillance should be consistent with, not contrary to, the promotion of communications security.
The political class
I’ll come back to these six principles in a moment, but I should say that for me the way in which politicians have lined up to support mass surveillance, certainly when pressed, has been one of the clear indication that our political system is broken, that the gap between the political class and the people has become a gulf. (In a system where MPs represented the interests of the people, some would be rather more sceptical of the claims made by the security services, the lack of political monitoring and effective judicial scrutiny, or the budgets they are able to command even in a time of austerity.)
And this matters for democracy because, as John Naughton wrote last year:
What we’re witnessing is the metamorphosis of our democracies into national security states in which the prerogatives of security authorities trump every other consideration and in which critical or sceptical appraisal of them is ruled out of court.
The campaign’s organiser mapped out the strategy at Tuesday’s meeting. He accepts that it is a niche campaign, and part of the strategy – everyone has learnt from 38 Degrees – is to build up a decent number of supporters through a petition, which in turn is linked to an email to MPs, so they can’t turn round and say that constituents don’t care about the issue.
Beyond that there will be meetings with parties seeking manifesto commitments and work on the test case that has been – unusually – fast-tracked by the European Court.
Frames and metaphors
What we know about such campaigns is that frames and metaphors matter, and they matter more when the issue you’re campaigning on goes to the heart of the secret state.
The campaign organiser seems to understand this: he talked a number of times about how several of the principles were embedded in the roots of Britain’s democracy.
The Bill of Rights, and other laws
Actually, the campaign should go much stronger on this. Five of these six principles – all six if you allow for technology change – go deep into the history of English politics, and in particular into the seventeenth century, when Parliament was at war with the monarchy for much of the century, until the accession of William and Mary and the creation of the constitutional monarchy. This – in particular the Bill of Rights of 1688 – is is the foundational myth of British democracy. (Some are far earlier: the principle of the open court, repeatedly upheld when challenged in law, may go back to Saxon England.)
So this is a Bill of Digital Rights, and frankly all the more welcome for it.
And since I’m here, the powers that are implicit in the way that GCHQ operates are those that led Parliament to take up arms against King Charles I, and eventually to try him and execute him for tyranny. Indeed, if this were a Causal Layered Analysis, we’d find ourselves quickly past the litany level at which the present political discourse is conducted and be heading for the deep and fundamental divide between Hobbes and Locke.
Of course politicians will try to claim that things have changed since then, but the claim does not survive scrutiny. Although the word “terrorist” didn’t exist in the seventeenth century, Britain was far more vulnerable to military or religious attack then than it is now.
So the campaign should be asking politicians where they stand on the Bill of Rights. We should be asking them, in effect, if they’re in favour of democracy or not. Our history can open up spaces for political discussion – especially in an area that’s been largely closed down by the political process, and by politicians – in ways that conventional campaigning does not. As we saw, recently, in the debate about the origins of the Great War.
You can sign the petition here.
The image of GCHQ’s listening station at Bude was taken by Siân Berry and is published under a Creative Commons licence.