Thoughts on the Draft Communication Bill: An Interview with Andy Phippen

The Left Central Writer

Professor Andy Phippen

As Professor Noam Chomsky points out, the internet is capable of liberating oppressed people while having the potential to be utilised for surveillance and for controlling opposition to state oppression. It is the latter observation that the pressure group Open Rights Group believe relevant, considering our civil liberties to be at risk due to the draft Communications Data Bill pointing out:

It marks a serious increase in the powers the state has to order any communications provider – whether it is an Internet Service Provider (ISP) like BT or an Internet company like Google – to collect, store and provide access to our information about our emails, online conversations and texts.

The Orwellian feature of the legislation is outlined by Open Rights Group arguing it grants the technical ability to identify the political orientations of protestors who blog or write for radical websites. An issue relevant to whistle blowers or investigative journalists who might find themselves subject to the measures outlined in this draft legislation under the guise of ‘public interest’ or their journalistic work compromised by a vague requirement of the state to investigate a crime.

Professor Andy Phippen agreed to talk about the proposed legislation:

AP: Government’s respond to social problems by avoiding the issue and focusing instead on the internet, a knee jerk reaction motivated by ‘legislative hyper-activity.’ The internet mirrors society. We need to focus on the actual social problem and criminal activity rather than focusing on the internet.

LC: What’s the motivation behind the Bill?

AP: Technological advancement brings fears for governments; even the invention of the printing press produced a hysterical reaction. Biblical scholars were concerned that they were going to lose social control over the ‘common man.’ The availability of books meant those in power lost control.

Yet from history we learn that the printing press empowered humanity and in the same way the internet democratizes information. The government today fear a loss of control in much the same way as the biblical scholars did. Knowledge is power and the internet has empowered.  To take one example, look at academic research. It is becoming more freely available and as a result it has enriched the knowledge base. Academic research and other information, once available only to elites, is now widely available.

LC: Do you think the internet enhances our democracy?

AP: Yes, we can discover much more about the world without relying on a mainstream media which can be accused of being politically biased and working to an agenda that is less than analytical and led by sound bites and press releases.

The internet provides an alternative source of information. It enhances our understanding. For example when the right-wing press and media equated Iran with Iraq it was the online media, social networking and blogs that let people know that Iran is a much more diverse country than the one portrayed. The internet helped develop our understanding about the situation in Iran proving that it is not comparable to the type of society that operated in Iraq. While the right-wing position was to suggest Iran was a closed Islamic society and a threat, the internet demonstrated this was not the case.

The same could be said about the Middle East. The media in the USA and UK is pro-Israeli but the internet allows an alternative perspective to come through via social media and blogs which gives voice to the Palestinian cause, an oppressed and occupied people. It allows us to make informed judgements by looking at all of the perspectives, rather than just the ones told to us.

LC: Can the internet bring about progressive social change given the role social media played during the Arab Spring?

AP: Yes it can. The internet is a lens into the world and there is no doubt that social media played an important role. I was also interested in David Cameron’s reaction to social media during the summer riots in English cities last year, which took place immediately after the Arab Spring. Mr Cameron commended social media in the Middle East but proposed to shut down BBM, Twitter and Facebook when it became clear that rioters were using social networks during the English disturbances.

Mr Cameron was seemingly prepared to countenance a policy that would have received criticisms from the UK government if the Chinese government acted in a similar way. The prime minister seems to have forgotten that social media is just another way of communicating. Further, it actually aided the legal process given that rioters communicated in this way as it made convictions easier to secure; rioters using emails and twitter provided incontrovertible data that allowed the CPS to secure convictions. The internet was an aid to the authorities not a hindrance.

LC: Indeed, the internet is only another communication tool. It is interesting because if we take the phone and criminality we see a different mindset at work. For example, a person can be assaulted during a phone call if the words used have placed the receiver of the call in “fear of immediate violence” but nobody calls for a telephone ban.

AP: I think Dominic Grieve (the Attorney General) feels that there are plenty of laws in place already without introducing more. Legislation does not resolve social problems; education does, which is where policy makers should focus efforts. So, where online bullying takes places we have to be seen to exercise the law in terms of harassment or libel bringing the behaviour to an end. Likewise, restorative justice projects in cases concerning cyber-bullying have a positive impact because it forces the perpetrator to reflect upon their actions

LC: Is your opposition to the Bill linked to civil liberties?

AP: Yes it is. But I also do not know what this draft bill hopes to achieve. It`s not well thought through. For example, take the issue of jurisdiction. How is UK legislation going to enforce a statutory code on Facebook and Google which are controlled outside the UK? The government feels it has to be seen doing something; unfortunately the coalition seems to be evolving a ‘right to rule’ mentality. This is particularly concerning when you examine the front bench which comprises individuals moving from PPE degrees at Oxbridge to political careers who ultimately end up running the country. Where in that career progression is the opportunity to develop practical experience or an understanding of how society, as a whole, works?

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