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April 23, 2013 / Hannah


Sorry for the protracted silence – it’s mostly because I’ve done little else in the last few weeks except draft and redraft my POSTnote. After grappling with numerous drafts and struggling to fit into four pages what took a Joint Committee 101 pages to discuss, it went for internal review last week. What followed was a review meeting which, while very productive, got off to a comically conflicted start:

Reviewer 1: “I think this is one of the best POSTnotes we’ve had, it’s excellent and I really enjoyed reading it.”

Reviewer 2: “I think the complete opposite, it’s an absolute mess and I’m not happy with it at all.”

No exaggeration, those are almost verbatim quotes. I shouldn’t have been surprised  – internet surveillance is such a divisive issue, it’s quite fitting that my take on it also sharply divided opinions. Recent comments from David Cameron’s technology adviser reveal the extent of the conflict within the coalition, never mind elsewhere.

At the heart of the issue are  two crucial aims: to uphold the right to privacy, and to enforce laws and protect national security. Operating in a rapidly evolving technological climate, GCHQ and the Home Office say that current surveillance laws are simply not up to the job any more, and as a result they’re missing out on significant information needed to prevent terrorism (warning: link contains massive hyperbole). The main regulatory instrument for surveillance, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) was passed in 2000, before Facebook was even a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye. Internet communication has come a long way since then, and the general argument that RIPA needs updating hasn’t caused too much controversy.

What has caused anger and upset however, is the Draft Communications Data Bill, which was presented before Parliament in May 2012. In a nutshell, where information about people’s internet activities were previously only stored at the request of law enforcement, the bill proposed blanket data retention for 12 months (see here page 232 for a more detailed explanation on what types of data would be stored). With improved technologies and the decline in per-minute billing, ISPs no longer retain as much data as they used to about our internet communications. The retention period called for in the bill would ensure that law enforcement agencies are able to access the information they need to investigate crimes. While this would undoubtedly make life easier for police officers and security services, the draft bill attracted strong criticism from privacy groups, industry and the Parliamentary scrutiny committee. Criticism has largely focused on risks to privacy and freedom from suspicion, but technical issues have been raised too, including fears that the new regulation could stifle innovation in the internet sector.

So what’s my opinion on the bill? Simple: I don’t have one.

…not convinced? Didn’t think so. Of course I have an opinion – lots of opinions – on all of this. You’d have to be disengaged to the point of sociopathy to spend three months immersed in this debate, interview numerous passionate stakeholders, and remain entirely neutral. But the simple fact is that POST, and by extension me, is non-partisan. Its remit is to provide balanced analysis of public policy issues in the scientific/technology sphere, allowing MPs, peers, and any other readers to form their own opinions. My opinions have their place, and that place is outside of work and away from the POSTnote.

Writing a truly balanced analysis of such a controversial high stakes topic has been a huge challenge. In some ways it’s very different from academic papers, blog posts and articles, where a strong argument is often considered a mark of quality. Presenting a nuanced briefing with a narrative structure, without descending into “he said, she said”, has been difficult at times, and I hope that the final note will reflect the efforts I’ve made on that score. I say ‘challenge’ rather than ‘problem’ though, because it’s been an almost overwhelmingly positive experience. Having to really consider and present both sides of the debate has left me with more in-depth knowledge, and more confidence in some of my political opinions (outside the office!). Plus it’s just plain exciting to be working on such a topical and hotly debated issue.

As for the review meeting, after a rocky start all the reviewers agreed that while the content was pretty much there, the note’s structure needed work. It’s been re-jigged, polished and pruned and is now ready to go out to external reviewers. Do you think they’ll all agree with each other…?



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  1. Matt Stratford / Apr 23 2013 3:35 pm

    I would be interested to get your off-the-record opinion over a beer! For what it’s worth, I basically think liberty has been traded for security rather too often and this bill should be opposed. But the noise and the fury is in favour of it, and those who shout loudest get listened to most, unfortunately.

  2. Hannah / Apr 23 2013 6:59 pm

    Definitely, always up for a beer debate! There’s been quite a lot of noise and fury against as well though, many rumours that Clegg will continue to veto it unless there’s a substantial rewrite.

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