The World Wide Web may have been created by a Brit but in the last 15 years the UK government has shown nothing but disdain for online liberties and online privacy. In fact, out of all western nations, we reckon the UK is probably the most draconian and heavy handed in its approach to managing and controlling its own citizens in the online space, and - unlike the US’ PRISM program - most of this has been done out in the open.
So here’s five reasons, in no particular order, demonstrating how rotten the UK government really is when it comes to web. Disagree with us? Think your country’s government has a worse record? Let us know in the comments below.
We wonder what’s in Theresa May’s search history… leave your suggestions below!
If it were left up to the current Tory government and the poisonous home secretary Theresa May, the Communications Capability Development Programme, or ‘Snoopers’ Charter,' would have been quietly ushered into the Queen’s Speech back in 2012, ready to be brought into effect in 2014. Thankfully, the plans were leaked to the media beforehand, and there was enough furore for coalition partners, the Lib Dems, to regain some of its backbone by opposing it.
In case you didn’t know the Snooper’s Charter is the government’s attempt to force ISPs into monitoring a whole range of internet activities, including emails, social media activity and the websites you’ve visited (although this last activity is believed to already be legal under the EU Data Retention Directive – see below).
Despite the subsequent PRISM revelations, we probably still haven’t seen the back of the Snooper’s Charter. The head of counter-terrorism is still pushing for the bill to be implemented and Theresa May’s cynical campaign of scaremongering - which tried to smear opponents of the bill as paedophile-sympathisers - seems to have swayed the minds of the British population. Labour have suggested they oppose the bill, but Labour have a god awful record when it comes to online privacy (see below), so they’re more likely than the coalition to push a similar bill through if they have a majority in 2015.
Data retention pioneer
Everyone is talking about PRISM, but there’s already a programme of mass online surveillance in full effect, and it’s legally mandated, and out in the open. The EU Data Retention Directive has been in operation since 2006 in the majority of EU countries, although there are a few - including Germany - who thankfully have a judiciary independent enough to fight for the rights of its citizens.
The EU Data Retention Directive is probably the worst piece of anti-online privacy legislation ever enacted in the western world. The directive forces all ISPs to record communication logs and personal information during your subscription, and then store that data for up to two years after you leave their service.
But before all you UKIP lovers start blaming the EU for oppressing member states, realise the UK Labour government was forcing ISPs to retain data as part of anti-terrorism legislation years before it was forced upon the rest of Europe. In fact, the UK pioneered this type of mass data retention following 9/11 and was the directive’s biggest cheerleader on the continent, in the face of protestations from other EU countries. So yes, while Theresa May is a foul human being, remember the situation was no different under successive Labour home secretaries.
Why on earth is this thing telling us what we can look at on the internet?
Porn filter and censorship
The UK’s incoming ISP-level porn filter, and the recently announced banning of fake rape porn, is a wonderful example of political scaremongering and deceit. The Tory government and the Home Office masterfully managed to conflate the issues of child pornography, with the danger of legal porn being accessed by children.
There was no real public consultation about the issue and no real examination on whether such a filter would even work (and nearly all experts agreed it wouldn’t). Everyone from Wikipedia, to MumsNet opposed the idea. But dissent on the right wing was muffled by Daily Mail-style morality, while dissent on the left was curbed by feminists whose knee-jerk hatred of pornography prevented any rational thinking.
Obviously none of the above really matters, because the porn filter isn’t really about porn. The filter is just another tool the government can use to exert some control over online content. Remember the filter’s official mandate already goes well beyond pornography, extending to everything from “esoteric content” (those poor pagans) to VPN sites like this one (yep, if you want to view this blog you’ll have to ‘do an Alan Patridge’ and beg your ISP to “turn on the porn please”). Plus the definition of pornography itself is very much open to interpretation.
Labour home secretary Charles Clarke played a big role pushing for data retention in Europe. With ears that big he probably already knows what you’ve been talking about offline.
Once the filter is established it sets a precedent. Any enhancements, or replacements, to the filter can be easily slipped in by the government without a real debate, and the amount of filtered content will just get broader and broader. Yes, the filter is crude today, but it will get more sophisticated over time (that’s inevitable) – and such leaps forward will occur completely under the radar. Congratulations. The government now has a list of every household in the UK that wants access to content it does not agree with.
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act was enacted in 2000 by the Labour government, in order to deal with the change in communication habits instigated by the internet (the same justification being used for the Snoopers Charter). The legislation basically allows a whole raft of public bodies to access all the private data being hoovered up by data retention programmes. It also allows public bodies to demand citizens hand over passwords to protected information, enables public bodies to request an ISP (or indeed a VPN) monitor specific individuals, and allows these warrants to be kept secret.
So who are these public bodies that can access our data? Well interceptions are restricted to the sorts of agencies you’d expect, such as GCHQ and law enforcement. But when it comes to data that’s already been collected (by programmes such as the above mentioned Data Retention Directive) hundreds public bodies have permissions, including over 470 local authorities. In 2008/9 there were over 50,000 requests for communications data, according to Privacy International (apparently the government stopped releasing the figures since then). So you better not get involved in too many disputes with your local council (it’s not as if such powers haven’t been abused in the past).
‘Extreme’ content ban
Just this week the crime and security minister James Brokenshire said the government will order ISPs to block “extremist” content online. As we mentioned above, David Camerson also announced plans to ban pornography that simulated rape (making it illegal to watch). As with data retention almost a decade ago, the UK government is still a pioneer in trying to control the online space.
Of course, no one likes terrorists and rapists, but do we really trust the government to decide which extremist ideologies are too dangerous for us and what “simulated rape” actually entails? Obviously there will be clear cut cases, but there will also be many grey areas. Every major porn website hosts BDSM content, which can be easily defined as “simulated rape.” Does this mean the UK government is not only going to impose a porn filter, but will actually completely outlaw every porn site on the internet? Will it issue guidelines to explain when does a rough sex video becomes “simulated rape” and therefore liable to land you in jail?
When it comes to extremist sites, again, where does the government draw the line? What is “extremist” and what measurements being used to determine this? Moreover, don’t we want extremists to operate out in the open, rather than driving them underground? Doesn’t this make it easier for the security services?
None of this makes a great deal of sense, until you realise the government doesn’t care much about protecting children, terrorism, or rape. What the UK government cares about is creating enough legal recourse to exert as much power and control over the virtual space as it possibly can.