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Sunday, November 03, 2013

The extraordinarily muted response to our loss of civil liberties

In a powerful article in today's Observer, Henry Porter contrasts the reaction in the United Kingdom with that elsewhere to the news that GCHQ has been collaborating with the Americans in collecting huge amounts of personal data on British citizens.

He says that in contrast to Britain, the reaction in Germany, France, Spain, Brazil and the United States to the NSA leaks has included protest, vigorous debate and in America the admission from the secretary of state, John Kerry, that the NSA has gone too far and the policy of bulk data collection must be looked at again:

Last week's disclosure about Europe-wide surveillance of phone and internet traffic, going on, presumably, without the knowledge of democratically elected assemblies, has caused further outrage. And now Brazil and Germany, angered by the NSA and GCHQ's activities, have drafted a resolution for the UN General Assembly, which declares deep concern about "human rights violations and abuses that may result from the conduct of any surveillance of communications".

This is what democratic response looks like, though you don't see much of it here. In Britain, the government has told us not to worry our silly heads and Labour has remained eloquently silent, because all these problems stem from the casually authoritarian Blair regime, which gave GCHQ the legal powers that are now exposed. Many elements of the media, meanwhile, have suffered some form of moral and intellectual paralysis and accept without question that we should trust the state with the power to access anyone's information.

It seems extraordinary that the Conservative press, so wary of the state in practically every other area, is prepared to trust the intelligence agencies with powers granted under RIPA that are so opaque that they might as well be written in Serbo-Croat. As the Labour MP Tom Watson said of the critical part of RIPA in a Westminster Hall debate on surveillance last week: "Interpreting that section requires the unravelling of a triple-nested inversion of meanings across six cross-referenced subsections linked to a dozen other cross-linked definitions, which are all dependent on a highly ambiguous 'notwithstanding'."

The genius of the law was to mask its own potency, while the genius of the government's response to those concerned about RIPA and its threat to liberty is to dismiss them as extremists and alarmists. The Guardian, which has been lauded all over the world for publishing some of the NSA leaks, is described in the language used for a "treasonous" insurgency, and the prime minister has even murmured threats against the newspaper.

The truth is that opposition to these laws is in fact no more than a politically moderate concern for liberty and democracy. That is all. The debate does occasionally fire up, as in the Westminster Hall event last week, when there were some terrific contributions from its Lib Dem sponsor, Julian Huppert, the Labour MPs Tom Watson, John McDonnell and David Winnick, and the staunch Tory, Dominic Raab. But this was just a debate – RIPA was not being redrafted; no action will be taken to increase oversight of the intelligence agencies; and almost no one heard the arguments, because most papers and TV didn't cover it.

He has a point.
secret surveilance, gagging...beware your local authority is also getting into the act
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