Passage of Investigatory Powers Bill Places UK Under Extreme Surveillance

If the mere thought of migrant corpses brings you immediately to orgasm, then you probably don’t need much privacy and you certainly don’t need no porn. That’s why Theresa May, the Tory government, and their abettors in the Labour Party this week were able to boast the long-brewing success of the Investigatory Powers Bill, which after passing in the House of Lords will now receive the formality of Royal Assent to become law. Meanwhile, the government advanced its ham-fisted onslaught against internet porn.

The Draft Investigatory Powers Bill was presented to parliament by Theresa May, then occupying her previous role as Home Secretary, in November of last year. If offered a revamped form of what had become known as May’s ‘Snooper’s Charter’, which had received widespread criticism with regard to privacy, security, accountability, and cost before being blocked by the Conservative Party’s coalition partners the Liberal Democrats in 2013.

The Draft Investigatory Powers Bill was scarcely an improvement. It required communications service providers to store for 12 months records of the websites visited by every UK citizen. For the first time, it explicitly allowed the bulk collection of personal communications data, and afforded the security services scope to engage in ‘equipment interference’, effectively giving them the power to hack private electronics. It authorised targeted data interception, and bulk data interception relating to individuals outside of the UK. And it sought to place a legal obligation on companies to assist in these efforts to intercept data and bypass encryption.

Following scrutiny by the Intelligence and Security Committee of parliament and by a Joint Select Committee, at the beginning of March the Home Office published a revised Investigatory Powers Bill. But while the media gladly regurgitated the government line, with Theresa May suggesting that the revised bill was ‘both clearer and stronger in protecting privacy’, in fact the revision did little to address the many concerns raised by the committees.

In fact it bolstered the right of the security services to engage in equipment interference, allowing warrants to be issued urgently in cases of ‘imminent threat to life or serious harm’. It made it easier for the authorities to access all website browsing data, rather than limiting requests to communications services and illegal material. It ignored concerns regarding encryption and calls for a proper process of review. And a contested passage justifying state surveillance for the protection of Britain’s ‘economic well-being’ remained intact.

The revised bill only reaffirmed a commitment to a judicial ‘double-lock’, making a senior judge and commissioners under his or her leadership jointly responsible for approving data and interference requests. In one of its few concessions, the Home Office did at least publish as promised a full ‘codes of practise’ regarding the proper use of all these new and enhanced powers.

The bulk collection of personal communications data has previously been rejected in the USA, Canada, Australia, and throughout Europe. Following the publication of the revised Investigatory Powers Bill in March, the executive director of the Open Rights Group Jim Killock explained:

‘On first reading, the revised Bill barely pays lip service to the concerns raised by the committees that scrutinised the draft Bill. If passed, it would mean that the UK has one of the most draconian surveillance laws of any democracy with mass surveillance powers to monitor every citizen’s browsing history.’

Meanwhile Joe Cannataci, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, stated that some of the key provisions contained within the bill:

‘run counter to the most recent judgements of the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights, and undermine the spirit of the very right to privacy.’

Yet the revised bill managed to evade further scrutiny by committee, and during the report stage in the House of Commons – at which MPs from all sides may debate the bill and consider further amendments – the Labour Party soon began towing the Tory line. Their rationale, as conveyed by then Shadow Home Office Minister Keir Starmer, was that the British government has been collecting personal communications data on a massive scale for years covertly, so the bill would at least put the practise on a statutory footing.

Labour secured a rather vague commitment to a future independent study of bulk powers, but otherwise Shadow Home Secretary Andy Burnham led the backslapping, heralding a provision meant to protect trade union activities while leaving journalists, activists, and the average citizen firmly in the lurch. The third reading of the bill swiftly commenced, and was passed by the House of Commons on 7 June, with roughly half of Labour MPs abstaining, but the other half happily going along with their Conservative counterparts. In total 444 MPs voted in favour of the Investigatory Powers Bill, with just 69 MPs voting against, made up predominantly of Scottish Nationalists and Liberal Democrats, plus the House’s solitary Green.

Upon the passage of the Investigatory Powers Bill in the House of Lords on Thursday, the US whistleblower and privacy advocate Edward Snowden tweeted:

‘The UK has just legalised the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy. It goes further than many autocracies.’

And Liberal Democrat peer Lord Strasburger expressed a pertinent concern, saying:

‘We do have to worry about a UK Donald Trump. If we do end up with one, and that is not impossible, we have created the tools for repression. If Labour had backed us up, we could have made the bill better. We have ended up with a bad bill because they were all over the place.’

In a separate move which displays many of the same totalitarian tendencies, the government this week also stepped up its efforts to rid the UK of the terrible vice of online porn. This has been a recurrent theme of Conservative policy ever since the Daily Mail – which makes its online living via candid shots of female celebrities – ran a ‘Block Online Porn’ campaign back in April 2012.

In July 2013, then Prime Minister David Cameron announced a series of measures meant to curtail the viewing of online pornography, which he stated was ‘corroding childhood’. Internet service providers were required to ask their customers to ‘opt-in’ if they wished to view adult material, with pornography to be filtered by default. The possession of ‘extreme pornography’, including pornography depicting rape, was made illegal. And ‘horrific’ terms were to be blacklisted from search engine results.

The government was encouraged in its crusade in March 2015, when an NSPCC report cited a survey by the ‘creative market research’ group OnePoll claiming that a tenth of all 11-12 year olds were ‘addicted to pornography’. But critics of the government’s proposals have repeatedly cited the difficulty in implementing accurate filters and blocks without also preventing access to non-pornographic material, the lack of evidence regarding the pernicious impact of porn on the young, and the subjective nature of what might be deemed unacceptable to watch, with the British Board of Film Classification banning at the end of 2014 acts including caning, facesitting, fisting, and female ejaculation.

Now Conservative MP Claire Perry, acting on the government’s behalf, has tabled several amendments to the Digital Economy Bill 2016-17 which would give the BBFC the power to block all ‘adult’ websites which do not implement stringent age-verification checks. While the precise nature of such checks remains unclear, the regulator Ofcom has suggested they could involve users having to supply credit card information or else a check against the electoral register, in either case effectively establishing a database of all porn users within the UK.

Culture Secretary Karen Bradley opined that ‘the government is committed to keeping children safe from harmful pornographic content online and that is exactly what we are doing’. The latest amendments come partially in response to new European Union Net Neutrality rules, which would prevent the blocking or slowing of internet traffic except in narrowly defined circumstances.

Once more having to serve as the voice of reason, Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group said of the table amendments:

‘This could lead to tens of thousands of websites being blocked, despite their content being perfectly legal. In no way should this proposal be legislated for in this bill. There has been no thought or consultation, and the government has not even begun to define how blocking might be attempted.

They have no idea if it would work well or badly, or whether there is serious enough harm to justify such a massive restriction on UK adults access to legal material. We do however know that over 90% of parents manage their children’s activities online, according to Ofcom, and that 70% of households do not have children.’

A version of this article was originally published at The Shimmering Ostrich.