The snooper’s charter: Labour’s illiberal legacy

Westminster’s war on privacy predates the Tory majority.

Luke Gittos
Columnist

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Topics Politics UK

Less than a month into the reign of the new Tory government, we are now apparently seeing the teeth of its brutal legislative regime. The Tories’ proposed legal reforms include an update on the controversial Draft Communications Data Bill, to be called the Investigatory Powers Bill. Initially published in 2013, the Draft Communications Data Bill became known as the ‘snooper’s charter’ because it set out to grant the state considerable powers to compel the storage and disclosure of digital-communications data. Last week’s Queen’s Speech included plans to reintroduce a ‘turbo-charged’ version of the bill. This, coupled with the proposed repeal of the Human Rights Act, apparently shows how the newly elected ‘nasty party’ intends to treat our individual rights.

It’s difficult to see how much more turbo-charged the new bill will be, considering the extent of the powers contained in the old bill. When the snooper’s charter was last before parliament, Clause 1 allowed the home secretary to issue orders requiring telecommunications companies to retain and disclose to public authorities a huge amount of data about digital communications. Although the contents of the communications would not be retained, a vast amount of information could be inferred by the type of material that would be stored. Telecommunications companies would be forced to disclose who we are communicating with, the time and date of our communications, the volume of our communications and pretty much all other details about our digital communications, other than their precise content.

Much of the discussion around the bill has suggested that the departure of the Lib Dems has left the Tory majority with a bigger mandate to erode individual privacy. But this ignores the fact that the Lib Dems were completely ineffective at preventing the legislative erosion of privacy during their time in coalition. In July 2014, the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill – which became known as DRIP – was rushed into law, expanding the obligations to disclose information around digital communications. The Lib Dems’ criticism of the the Draft Communications Data Bill was purely technical. While many are claiming that the Lib Dems were responsible for keeping the Tories away from our personal information, actually the Lib Dems never provided any principled defence of privacy throughout their time in power.

Similarly, there is little to suggest that former Labour leader Ed Miliband would have done anything to repeal the extensive legislative framework that was originally introduced by his party to infringe on people’s privacy. Remember, Labour was responsible for the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which is the legislation that the new communications bill seeks to expand upon. Although the Tories are now once again seeking to expand the remit of the law, it was the Labour Party that instigated the law in this area.

Of course, the powers contained in the new bill will be draconian. But, when it comes to privacy, this Tory government is merely continuing the work of its New Labour predecessor, developing Blair-era ideas that were rubber-stamped during the coalition’s reign. The contemporary Westminster discussion around privacy is focused entirely on how best to tweak a regime that has been developed across the past three governments. This bill is not the result of a liberated Tory dictatorship – it is the result of a cross-party dismissal of the importance of privacy. If we want to challenge the developments in the law around privacy, we need to look at trends that have been given cross-party support over recent decades, rather than kid ourselves that this is the work of the uniquely draconian Tories.

Luke Gittos is law editor at spiked, a solicitor practising criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.

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