Communications interception — dazed half-memories of a conference call with @julianhuppert

Yesterday, I attended a blogger’s conference call with Julian Huppert MP and a special advisor from the Home Office, which was to discuss the proposed communications interceptions bill. At first it was just Huppert and myself, and I embarassed myself with my lack of political knowledge (I’d not read the Queen’s Speech yet because I’d been too busy not doing that), but we were joined by Richard Flowers, Richard Morris, Helen Duffet, Mark Pack, Jennie Woods, Caron Lindsay, Zoe O’Connell and Jonathan Calder. Zoe and Jonathan have both written about it already — some of the rest may have, too, but I haven’t checked my feed reader since about 9PM yesterday.

I did take detailed notes of the first half of the conversation. Unfortunately, one of the participants then said that a lot of what they’d said was off the record, and as I didn’t take perfect notes as to who said what (and took no notes at all for the last half), I’m going to be deliberately vague about a lot of stuff here, and try to ensure that I don’t tell tales out of school.

So I’m going to paraphrase here, and give MY INTERPRETATION of what is going on. This is *INFORMED BY* the conference call, but in paraphrasing and eliding details I may have got things wrong.

First things first, the so-called ‘draft bill’ going round is nothing of the sort. It’s a Home Office briefing document, and one that was written fairly early in the process. The draft bill *has not yet been written*, or at least has not been finalised.

It appears that the original intention of those who proposed the bill in the first place was to have something very like the worst rumours that have been out there, but that this has been *definitively* quashed by Lib Dem activists and MPs. It sounds to me like the Home Office (or elements within it) wanted to sneak one past us, and they couldn’t.

Despite the rumours, the stuff about blocking porn by default will *NOT* be in the draft bill.

The main point, however, is this:

The draft bill will probably be bad, *but that is not the end of the matter*. When it comes out, it will look horrible, and people will scream about it. When that happens, it will be a good thing if you let your MP know exactly what problems you have with the draft, but *do not panic at this stage*.

The bill will be going in front of a Parliamentary Committee, which Huppert is on, and which will be *extensively* modifying it. They will be doing so on the basis of advice from technology companies about what the actual technical implications of the bill will be (Huppert is probably the single most technologically clued-up person in Parliament, and he freely admits that he needs expert advice from people who know more than him. Much of the sheer awfulness of most legislation relating to the net (IN MY OPINION – this part did not come up in the call) arises from the fact that it’s written by middle-aged arts graduates who don’t know what it is that they don’t know, so the fact that they’re actually going to ask people with a clue is itself a major improvement), advice from civil liberties groups (Huppert mentioned Liberty, No2ID and the Open Rights Group as people whose opinions they will be asking for), and from non-affiliated individuals whose opinion will be useful (he mentioned Tim Berners-Lee and Jimmy Wales here).

The end result will be something far, far better than the draft bill. We can’t know what that something better will be yet, obviously, but the general rough lines will probably be:

Far fewer people having powers to order interception of communications (did you know that right now everyone from the police to your local council to the postal services authority can legally get access to records of every phone call you make and email you send? Not the contents of the message, but who it was to — and they can do it without a judicial warrant, and without you ever knowing.) — the ideal will be to have it be that only the police and security services can do this, and only with a judicial warrant, though we may not get that ideal.

An “air gap” whereby the police can’t directly access the databases held by ISPs or websites, but can only request data from those companies.

And then, and only with those additional restrictions, the ability for that smaller group of people to access contact data — data of who you’ve contacted through, eg, Skype — in the same way that the current larger group of people can access details of who you’ve emailed or phoned — if and only if that can be done without storing or decrypting the contents of the messages. If it can’t (and it is my understanding that it can’t, but I don’t know enough networking stuff to be sure) then that won’t happen.

The end result *should* be that a bad bill goes into the process, and a bill comes out that, while not good from my point of view, will mean that overall there is less state intrusion into people’s private correspondence, not more, and that what state intrusion there is will be for, if not good reasons, at least better ones. I can accept as plausible an argument that there might be circumstances in which the police or security services might need to know who talked to whom in order to prevent a terrorist atrocity. I don’t accept as reasonable the current situation, where councils can (and have) check people’s email records and have them followed because they’re suspected of letting their dogs foul the pavement.

If my understanding of what was said at last night’s call is correct, while the draft bill will be bad, the result of the scrutiny process *should* be that at the end of it we move from the current situation (where we have legislation in force already from the last government that frankly puts most of the structures for a totalitarian surveillance state into place, ready for any unscrupulous politician to use) to one where the worst excesses of the last government are rolled back slightly, though nowhere near as far as I’d like.

So while I can’t say I’m at all happy at the proposals, I have enough faith in Huppert’s record on both civil liberties and tech stuff that if he says the end result will be an incremental improvement, rather than things getting worse, I’ll take his word for it, at least until we see the bill after the committee’s scrutiny.

Other people who were on the call — could you please clarify or correct in the comments? I think I’m giving the correct impression here, but I’m terribly worried I’ve got hold of the wrong ends of several sticks…

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6 Responses to Communications interception — dazed half-memories of a conference call with @julianhuppert

  1. Hal says:

    Even with your caveats this is depressing, both these new elements and the powers already in place.
    As an aside this whole “Think Of The Children!” porn thing seems like the classic “Don’t Look At That, Look At This, Instead” move and lo! And Behold! There’s the Daily Mail squatting on it like a malevolent toad. Have you read the book Flat Earth News? I got that from the library, now *that* is a frightening tome.
    What do you think about a story appearing in the Mail which basically said that without the Liberal Democrats David Cameron would be able to behave like a “Real Tory”? That sounds rather suspiciously like a way of blaming the Lib Dems for any of the things that Cameron and the Tories have done that hardline right-wing small-c conservative people don’t think conservative or Conservative enough. The Lib Dems as scapegoats, of course they are presupposing that the Conservatives lost votes because they were “too liberal” rather than *too conservative* though it is the Mail so taking that point of view shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s a paper that rarely surprises after all.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Agreed that it’s depressing, but that’s what happens when parliament is dominated by two right-wing authoritarian parties. I think the bill, when finalised, will be two steps forward to one step back, so progress in the right direction, of a sort.
      As for the porn stuff, it’s not going to happen, it’s just a way of shoring up the Tory base.

      I’m sure that it’s true that Cameron would be more Conservative if the Tories were in government on their own, just like the Lib Dems would be far more Liberal were we in power without the Tories. If Cameron wants to ‘blame’ us for stuff like equal marriage, Lords reform and not killing anyone on sight if they’re suspected of being foreign, then let him. I just wish our leadership were more willing to blame the Tories for things like the NHS bill, the compromise on control orders, tuition fees and all the other things *our* supporters hate, rather than pretending that Cameron is our bestest friend ever.

  2. Richard says:

    That all seems to agree with my understanding of what we were told last night.

    One thing you don’t mention is the impression I got that there is a sense that Julian wants the Home Office to have to come up with this (bad) draft bill as an exercise in forcing them to reveal their hand. They have apparently been extraordinarily shy of doing this, even when asked by the Select Committee.

    (Theresa May is meant to have written a reply to the Select Committee’s written questions – something worth looking out for as it should be published.)

    Much (though far from all) of the badness in RIPA and various Terrorism Acts comes from enacting legislation that is written in vague and hand-wavy fashion, give extraordinarily wide powers of interpretation when it comes to doing unpleasant things to people at the business end. (Something that was easier to slide past the House when Labour were ramming through upwards of forty Acts of Parliament a year.) By forcing the Home Office to say what they want and then making them justify it line by line, there is some hope of actually provoking a “hang on a moment” response from MPs.

  3. Hal says:

    Great firebreathing stuff, Andrew, nice to see you have the courage of your convictions. Regardless of my own beliefs (some of which you can probably guess) I found it incomprehensible that the Liberal Democrats didn’t do better at the last general election, it seems that even if you have the best policies and seem the greatest opportunity for something fresh too few people have the courage to vote for you as if there can *only* ever be *two* real choices, surely non-partisan people can’t think this good? As part of the coalition you are characterized by some as begging for scraps from the big table -even as you do your best to restrain the more bonkers Tories those who would vote for you are alienated from doing so because of the conditions of the coalition. So we’re back to what is basically a two-party system, who does this serve? From an observer it seems as if you just can’t win no matter what you do, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Having three choices is surely better than two or one but that viewpoint seems unpopular. Absurd.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Absolutely. Unfortunately, people seem far too keen to think in terms of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, and we have an electoral system which encourages that. If we’d got AV in the referendum, things would have become very different.
      Still, there’s the possibility of getting STV for the Lords, if the two right-wing parties don’t block it, and that will allow decent representation not only for us but for a lot of smaller parties, too. We desperately need electoral reform to get the system changed so other voices can be heard, but apparently the electorate thought “giving Clegg (who’s never really shown the slightest interest in voting reform — his areas of interest are foreign policy, primary education and health policy) a kicking” for choosing the “wrong” one of two interchangeable options was more important than getting a functioning democracy.

  4. zoeimogen says:

    Yup, that pretty much matches my recollections of the call too. Only nitpick: “The bill will be going in front of a Parliamentary Committee, which Huppert is on”. He’s on the Home Affairs Select Committee, but it might go in front of another committee specially formed to look at this particular Bill, the membership of which has not been decided. I’d be amazed if he wasn’t on it though.

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