Fighting the draft Communications Data Bill

Don’t let the spin fool you. Any assertion that this Bill will merely add a few more capabilities to law enforcement officers is wildly missing the mark

by Emma Carr on 12 December 2012 16:21

On the day that the draft Communications Data Bill Joint Committee released their report, Big Brother Watch held a press conference with Jimmy Wales (co-founder of Wikipedia), Sir Chris Fox (former head of ACPO), Lord Macdonald (former Director of Public Prosecutions), David Davis MP (Member of Parliament for Haltemprice and Howden and former Shadow Home Secretary) and Nick Pickles (director of Big Brother Watch).

Why these five public figures? Because each of them has strongly held views, formed from their professional background, as to why the draft Communications Data Bill will not only be incapable of actually working but will at the same time be very dangerous.

Allow me to provide an overview of the panel's thoughts:

Jimmy Wales has voiced his concerns about the fact that the government seems to want to saddle start-ups with “amazing costs” from the very beginning of their creation, making the U.K. a much less attractive place to start a business. The creator of one of the most used websites on the planet described the Bill as being “technically incompetent”, “very expensive”, and almost certainly “not going to work”.

Lord Macdonald made the very important point that this Bill would irrevocably change the relationship between state and the public. Not only would there be a lack of trust but it is clear that the moral high ground on internet censorship would have been lost; you can’t condemn China and Iran for their violations when you are one step away from them yourself.

Sir Chris Fox acknowledged that the draft Bill has gone far further than it ever needed to, describing the scope and lack of safeguards as “breath-taking”. Most importantly thought, he noted the potential for mission creep opportunities in the future stating: “We shouldn’t base this on who has the powers now, but who may have them in the future.”

David Davis MP commented that he wanted to compliment the Committee for a rational report and acknowledged that the entire Bill process has been flawed from the start. He pointed out that there has been a startlingly inadequate consultation period and the cost-benefit analysis was inconsistent with the evidence given by the tech community.

So it appears that it is back to the drawing board for the Home Office. The aftermath of report has led Downing Street to state that there will be a redrafting process of the Bill. Yet the Home Office still states that there should be no delay in making the Bill law.

The first battle may have been won but the war is still very much to come. Any assertion from the Home Office that a small amount of tinkering and minor changes will be adequate is completely unacceptable. The committee has exposed weak evidence, misleading statements, and fanciful figures, and the recommendations highlight the very basic errors that have been made. An example of a key recommendation by the committee, which shows that I am not overstating the weak basis of the Bill, is that the term ‘communications data’ should be redefined.

Don’t let the spin fool you. Any assertion that this Bill will merely add a few more capabilities to law enforcement officers is wildly missing the mark. Michael Ellis MP, champion of the draft Bill, even tries to compare the proposed powers to information contained in a Tesco Clubcard; but as Mark Littlewood of the IEA points out, the distinct difference is that you can choose whether to have a loyalty card.

The complexity and sensitivity of creating such a Bill should have required a radically different process and would have created a totally different product. There are challenges, but they can be solved in a proportionate way that protects privacy, is based on what is technically possible, and focuses on maximising the effectiveness of data already held.

It is essential that if proposals are brought forward, they are comprehensively re-written and based upon clear evidence and proper consultation that this draft Bill fundamentally lacked.

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