Opposition is growing to the so-called “snooper’s charter”, the twice-rejected Communications Data Bill, which could become law later today after being sneaked into the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill by government-friendly peers on Thursday.
The amendments are being debated in the House of Lords today and peers have been urged to vote against the Bill as MPs will get no say. “If passed the amendment will give the Home Secretary new powers to require internet service providers to retain their customer’s [sic] web data and disclose it to public authorities on request,” warns privacy group No2ID.
The Electronic Freedom Foundation, meanwhile, has urged people to contact peers to persuade them to vote against the amendments. “Unless you take action to warn Britain’s House of Lords in time for the debate on Monday, there is a good chance that Britain will pass the infamous Snooper’s Charter into law with barely any oversight,” it warned in a campaign hurriedly launched on Friday.
It continued: “Their amendments are the core of the previously proposed, and rejected, Communications Data Bill, which would require ISPs to harvest and store data taken from their subscribers’ online traffic, and hand this over to the government without a warrant…
“The peers’ new amendments include some hasty rephrasing to cover some of the most obvious flaws in previous versions of the bill (now only the police and intelligence services have free rein to access your private metadata, as opposed to dozens of government bureaucracies anticipated in the original bill).
“But Parliament had more worries than just who had access to the data. The previous draft was examined by a joint committee of Lords and Members of Parliament, who unanimously rejected it, saying its cost estimates were “fanciful and misleading,” and its privacy protections were ‘insufficient’.”
The EFF has urged supporters to “Tweet the Lords” their opposition to persuade the 150 peers on Twitter to vote against the amendments today.
In addition to a debate on the amendments today, the Lords will only have two other opportunities to debate the counter-terrorism bill before it is, almost certainly, voted into law. With the general election just months away, campaigners fear that the amendments, along with the counter-terrorism bill, will be waived through with little scrutiny.
The four peers behind the amendments – all of whom have a background in the security establishment – say that the measures that had been contained within the Communications Data Bill, which they have introduced into the counter-terrorism bill currently going through the House of Lords, need to be in place before the general election.
The Communications Data Bill provides a framework under which internet service providers and other communications companies will be obliged to hold data on customers and their usage of their networks, and make that information available to public-sector bodies, including the police and security services.
The Communications Data Bill is the UK implementation of the European Union’s 2006 Data Retention Directive, which the UK is obliged to translate into UK law.
However, repeated attempts to pass the Bill have come up against widespread, cross-party opposition. Current Prime Minister David Cameron opposed the Bill while in opposition, only to u-turn once in office. The Liberal Democrats’ leader Nick Clegg, meanwhile, has u-turned twice – the second time killing off Cameron’s attempt to introduce it in 2013.
Not all of the security establishment supports the extension of online surveillance. Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, has claimed that the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York had distorted the priorities of the defence and intelligence communities, erroneously focusing it on Islamist extremism when the real, existential threat for the UK still came from Russia and China.
“Counter-terrorism activity will remain an important requirement but it should no longer dominate our national security thinking and planning,” said Dearlove in a speech last year. “Rather a problem we have learned to live with and that should seldom be given, either by the government or the media, the oxygen of publicity.”
For European countries, notes Alistair Sloan writing for the left-leaning website Politics.co.uk, separatist violence is a bigger threat than Islamist violence, with 84 such violent attacks in 2013, including rocket attacks by separatists in Corsica, part of France, compared to two that could be attributed to Islamism.