The Investigatory Powers Bill (IPB, aka the Snooper’s Charter) is “one of the most extreme surveillance laws ever passed in a democracy.” It provides the UK government with the legal framework to spy on every citizen’s telephone conversations, emails, text messages, and web browsing history.
It also grants the government wide powers to hack into computers, force companies to weaken the security of their encrypted products with backdoors, and imprison any whistleblower who attempts to warn customers that this has happened.
Furthermore, the information collected will be available to a ridiculously large number of government organizations. In fact, the list of government services that can now access your highly personal records is staggeringly long. It includes bodies such as the Department of Health, HM Revenue and Customs, the Postal Services Commission, the NHS Ambulance Service Trust, the Scottish Ambulance Service Board, and many more.
“Extreme” hardly covers it. The UK government has granted itself the power to become the most repressive state in the so-called free world. Indeed, given the reach and technological sophistication of its Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) spying agency, the UK is now positioned to become the most repressive surveillance state anywhere in the world.
For a full discussion on why this terrible law constitutes a full-frontal assault on our freedom, please see here. The law will also have a negative impact on human rights that far exceeds the UK’s borders. It will erode international standards, and be used by (other) authoritarian regimes to justify their own intrusive surveillance operations.
On Tuesday 29 November 2016 it was given royal assent, and has now passed into law.
A Public in Ignorance
Despite the “extreme” nature of the new law, it passed through both houses of Parliament with only token opposition (mainly from the LibDems). The ruling Conservative party had been prepared to put up a fight for the Bill. It had prepared arguments and was willing to make concessions.
But somewhat to its own surprise, with opposition Labour Party in total disarray, such were not needed. And the Bill has become law almost untouched.
Had there been more public outcry, things might have been very different, but the vast majority of British citizens remain completely unaware of the law’s existence. In large part this can be explained by the Tories taking full advantage of Brexit and the dramatic events of the US elections to sneak the law in unnoticed.
But crashing silence from the mainstream press must also be held to blame. Even traditional beacons of liberal reporting such as the Guardian newspaper have been strangely reluctant to report on the issue.
“In my view, Brexit has a lot to do with our predicament. The media, MPs and public were almost entirely preoccupied with the vote and its aftermath when it mattered, in May and June. In those two months, MPs had their major debates, and the campaign against the Bill threw everything we had at raising public consciousness, including a huge media campaign and awareness raising online, but without the kind of response we are seeing now.”
A Petition Against the Snooper’s Charter
Under UK law it is possible to petition Parliament and the government. If a petition reaches 100,000 signatures then it must be considered for debate in parliament. Parliament is under no legal obligation to do this, but the more signatures gathered, the greater the pressure is for the government to respond. If a petition reaches 250,000 or more signatures, then its hand is pretty much forced.
Although almost certainly started way too late (having been started after the bill had passed through all of its parliamentary stages), a petition calling for the investigatory Powers Bill to be repealed has now reached almost 150,000 signatures.
The fact that parliament has only just (and almost unanimously) passed the Bill makes it unlikely that a debate will change anything. Killock, however, thinks that a parliamentary debate could still be useful:
“Of course it is unlikely that the whole bill will be undone, as the petition demands… But what Parliament can and must do is look again at measures which constitute mass interference into people’s privacy. Parliament may be forced to re-legislate several of the measures in the Bill, as a consequence of legal actions that are soon to come back, so this request for a debate gives a timely opportunity to consider the issues that will be brought up by the courts.”
The Investigatory Powers Bill is a (literally) terrible piece of legislation. In one fell stroke it reverses decades (if not centuries) of social and democratic progress. It is, quite simply, a tool of oppression.
The more the public becomes aware of its implications, the more pressure there will be on MPs to at least improve its more terrifying and invasive aspects. I therefore urge all UK readers to visit the government website and sign the petition. Now.