The Communications Data Bill – what Index says
Padraig Reidy: The Communications Data Bill - what Index says
23 Aug 12

Index on Censorship has submitted our concerns about the UK government’s proposed Communications Data Bill (widely known as the “snoopers charter”). We have several concerns about the government’s proposals, as surveillance and retention of data can undoubtedly have an effect on free expression. I’ll reproduce the introduction to our submission,  which outlines our concerns, here, and you can read the full submission below.

The Communications Data Bill as currently drafted would directly undermine both the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression by making surveillance and storage of UK citizens’ communications data the norm. These rights are enshrined in Articles 8 and 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 and in the European Convention on Human Rights and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UNDR explicitly states that: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence”.

Collection and filtering of communications data across the whole British population would not only represent an unacceptable breach of privacy but would also undermine freedom of expression. Index on Censorship – as one of the world’s leading freedom of expression organisations – has monitored censorship and surveillance around the world for forty years. The goals of widespread monitoring, information-collection and storage, and surveillance of a whole population are aims that are normally found only in authoritarian and totalitarian states, such as Iran and China, not in democracies who are bound, through their accession to the human rights conventions mentioned above, and through their commitments to democracy and freedom, only to limit free expression where it is necessary on clear grounds of national security and public order and to impose any limits in a proportionate and limited manner.

Population-wide collection and filtering of communications data is neither necessary nor proportionate. Monitoring and surveillance of this kind impacts directly and in a chilling manner on freedom of expression, inhibiting and restricting individuals in how they receive, share and impart information and encouraging self-censorship. No other democracy has gone as far as the government proposes in this bill that the UK should go. As well as representing a major undermining of privacy and freedom of expression in the UK, this bill, if it became law, would be a direct encouragement and justification for authoritarian regimes to monitor in detail their entire populations online as well as off. It would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the UK to challenge these regimes on their censorship and surveillance of their populations. It is also remarkable that, in a memorandum attached to the draft bill on the compatibility of the bill with the European Convention on Human Rights, the government sees fit to focus only on the right to privacy and makes no mention of the potentially chilling and damaging impacts of the bill on freedom of expression.

The declared purpose of this bill is to tackle crime and to ensure national security. This type of in-depth monitoring of the entire population has at no point before been used or introduced as an appropriate crime-prevention or security-promoting tool in the UK. It would represent a reversal of the presumption of innocence and an unwarranted intrusion into the privacy of the British population.

Furthermore, the fact that new technology makes such population-wide data collection, filtering and monitoring possible is not a justification for using the technology in that manner. Such data collection would represent a major step-change in the amount of information available on individual citizens and is not, as has been claimed, simply a step to ensure information already available offline is also available from online sources. The distinction between ‘subscriber’, ‘use’ and ‘traffic’ data and data content is also a misleading one. The range of data that would be collected as ‘communications data’ would enable a detailed picture of individual’s habits, activities, interests, and opinions to be built up going well beyond any population-wide accumulation of data that has happened until now in the UK.

If you want to add your voice, you can sign 38 Degrees petition here;

Avaaz also has a petition here;

And Open Rights Group allows you to write directly to your MP here

Comms Data Bill Index Submission 22 August 12

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.