An extnesion of State snooping and surveillance powers simply cannot be allowed to happen on the Lib Dems’ watch, says the Social Liberal Forum’s Prateek Buch.
Proposed changes to how the government accesses information about private online communication have sparked widespread concern, and once again the country looks to the Liberal Democrats to see if they can prevent the worst Tory tendencies from becoming law.
Despite today’s assurances that concerns over the proposals ‘can be met’, the government nonetheless appears resolute in its defence of giving real-time access to communications data, without a warrant, to GCHQ.
Something has to give.
Pressure from Julian Huppert MP and his co-signatories to this letter has led to important early concessions: the home secretary will have to provide evidence to the home affairs select committee as to why the changes are necessary, and Nick Clegg affirmed the imminent Queen’s Speech will contain ‘draft clauses’ which will be subject to proper Parliamentary scrutiny before being considered as law, which is of course as it should be.
There have also been reassurances that no new centralised database of the content of emails and social media messages would be created as the previous Labour government would have done – a simple promise to stand by the coalition agreement (pdf).
Anything short of this procedural propriety would be unacceptable.
• How the 9/11 response changed Britain 11 Sep 2011
But concerns remain that giving ground on procedure alone should not be seen as the same thing as making the proposals themselves acceptable to those who wish to see civil liberties safeguarded, not eroded.
There are a host of technical difficulties relating to whether meta-data about online communications can ever be collected without revealing a lot about the content of such messages, about security of even meta-data when held by private companies (or anyone for that matter), and about the cost of such measures.
But beyond the technical aspects there are significant matters of political principle at stake that the Lib Dem leadership and the coalition as a whole must pay heed to.
Firstly there is the matter of how the Lib Dems should act when presented with measures outwith (or in this case, expressly in violation of) the coalition agreement.
The leadership’s initial support for the extension of surveillance powers may have waned but it indicated that despite not being obliged to support measures that aren’t covered by the coalition agreement, they are reluctant at best to exercise that discretion.
Learning the lessons of the disastrous way in which the health and social care bill (now Act) was handled is paramount, and first amongst these lessons should have been, ‘if the Tories want to do something that goes against our values, rather than seeking to delay, amend, or reassure us of its propriety, strangle it a birth’.
Secondly there’s a matter of liberal principle that the coalition needs to accept. These proposals apparently stem from the desire to stamp out criminal and terrorist activity. But in seeking to safeguard our safety, liberals believe that the balance between civil liberties and State surveillance should be extended in favour of the former, that the very values and way of life we seek to protect should not be jeopardised in capitulating to an authoritarian security lobby.
Should the power to monitor, without oversight and scrutiny, how we communicate with each other be extended and not put back in its box as it should be, the government will set a dangerously illiberal precedent – and that simply can’t be allowed to happen on the Lib Dems’ watch.