Draft Data Communications Bill: Interview with Jim Killock

Left Central’s John Curran 

Image © utnapistimC

The following interview was conducted with Jim Killock Executive Director of Open Rights Group in which he outlines the approach his pressure group are taking in resisting Home Office proposals to introduce a draft data communications bill aka snooper’s charter.

  • If you could highlight the most important features of your campaign what would they be?

Open Rights Group’s campaign is primarily about public engagement – in order to show that the draft Data Communications Bill is an unpopular and highly intrusive breach of UK citizen’s human rights. What we have learnt by talking to Parliamentarians is that many people across the political spectrum share our views and object to these proposals and are concerned about this intrusion into our civil liberties. The big push for this legislation is coming from the narrow confines of the Home Office. We have to counter the information coming from this direction and educate both the politicians and public that the Home Office is wrong.

  • So the Home Office are exclusively responsible for this draft proposal?

The Home Office claims their ability to get hold of data is declining and that they are struggling to keep up. That is how the issue is portrayed, although such a view is in reality difficult to sustain. The trouble is, certain sections of government want to find more out more and more about its citizens. This can cascade into a very significant intrusion and breach UK citizens civil liberties.

Online data is a honey pot for the Home Office and for the Police. They see the draft measure as an opportunity to get hold of more information and the criminal justice angle is a convenient prop for government to hang on to. It is easy to claim that crime can only be solved in this way when they want to sell this type of legislation to the public.

  • The draft Communications Data Bill seems unstoppable what can be done to halt this legislation?

Well I don’t necessarily agree with the premise of your question. Yes, there is a very strong push for this legislation but as I have said it is coming from one government department, the Home Office. There is no overall political consensus operating behind the scenes. One government department has made its case but that is all.

Remember we are talking about a coalition government and many Liberal Democrats do not want this draft bill, and there are significant sections of the Conservative Party that are against it also. It is possible to defeat this government on this issue in a vote. When a government operates with a slim majority individual MPs have significant influence and their views matter. This is not like the days when New Labour had a massive majority and the executive was largely unrestrained. Even a relatively small rebellion could stop this draft proposal, so the Coalition must listen to its backbenchers. 

  • What about the Labour Party, have they been supportive?

To be honest they appear to be a bit confused on this, it does not look like they have done much thinking on the subject. Ed Miliband has said that he wishes to break away from his party’s dire record on civil liberties during the Blair/Brown years but thus far  we have not seen a great deal of movement. We need to galvanise public opinion and as we establish that this draft measure is unpopular then we should expect that Labour may come on board.

  • The internet and social messaging during the Arab Spring proved to be a catalyst for revolutionary change, firstly do you agree with this? And secondly the internet has come under attack via the draft Bill, if the internet has a revolutionary force why does it appear so vulnerable in the UK?

Well … (laughs) perhaps it does have revolutionary potential and that is what causes government such distress and the desire to control it. Politicians expect things to be predictable but the internet does not work that way. The internet is often blamed for social problems but it is not the internet per se that is culpable but it is an easy target. Social problems need to be tackled and dealt with at source and not by attempting to control the internet.

  • Has your group got a wider agenda other than blocking the draft Bill?

Our focus is on civil liberties and digital freedom in the digital age. Governments and giant corporations view the digital age in a different way from us. We believe that its vitally important that individuals are empowered by technology and that it should be allowed to aid people’s ability to be creative and to organise themselves; when the internet achieves this, civil society is enriched. Governments and corporations view the digital age as an opportunity to place people under surveillance and to restrain human development, so we need to campaign strongly against this.

We believe we need to have a separation between laws and technology so that individuals can develop openly and freely. The Internet must be utilised to benefit citizens and the law to restrain powerful actors when they try to use technology against us.

  • Charter 88 in the 1990s successfully persuaded New Labour to adopt a significant constitutional reform agenda. Labour in power drastically curbed civil liberties while Charter 88 remained largely silent. How does a pressure group avoid an overly close relationship with one of the main oppositional parties?

A pressure group should not be in the business of striking political bargains. When you do this then you have gone wrong. There should be no compromise of your principles. When a pressure group indulges in such compromises then they end up serving the purposes of the powerful and not the weak. A pressure group should not fear initial failure as the No2ID campaign illustrates. They initially failed as the ID Cards Act was passed but the group stuck to its guns, did not compromise and in the end they won.

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