Tuesday, 3 April 2012

The Belated Birth of the Paranoid Public

The recent warm weather has brought with it several silly season stories and the Easter holidays have only just begun. Before the weekend, the media feeding frenzy was on whether a disinclination towards savoury baked goods was evidence that the Conservative party were elitist and ill-suited to government. In the past twenty-four hours, this has moved on to deeply concerning reports that the government is set to begin 'snooping' on emails, telephone calls and online conversations.
Today's headlines make a serious of highly
misleading claims which the Coalition have
been characteristically slow to respond to.

The level of sudden concern for civil liberties is not just limited to political nerds, rather the issue seems to have captured the public's attention. To freedom watchers, this may seem odd. After all, the ACTA dispute which waged on the continent almost by-passed the UK and other disturbing recent civil liberties developments have almost entirely escaped the notice of the libertarian movement who have leapt on this story with such fervour. Nick Pickles of the centre-right civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, for example, told the BBC that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were 'betraying the principles' they had been elected on.

A proud moment for civil libertarians everywhere, surely?

Except, it seems, the claims are almost entirely specious and the attacks premature. The offending document only mentions legislation will be passed in order to ensure that updating outdated laws are civil liberties compliant. Mr Pickles himself admits 'we don't know the policy itself' but disapproves of 'the principle of spying on everyone'. Well ... quite. So too have backbench Conservative MPs and the print media who have prematurely leapt to judgement without actually providing any evidence to back up their wild claims. 

Lynn Featherstone, a Liberal Democrat minister in the Home Office, emailed party members today calling the claims 'nonsense' and promising the resignation of all Lib Dems from the Coalition if their Conservatives partners ever attempted such a law, explaining:

References to giant databases in the current stories
seems to be a hybrid from the above story, which largely
went unnoticed in February.
The proposals being considered would simply update the current rules – which allow the police in criminal investigations to find out who was contacted and when – to cover new forms of technology that didn’t even exist when the original laws were made, like Skype.

What this will not do is allow the government, or the police, or any other agencies, to read your emails and Facebook messages (or any other social media for that matter) at will. The content of your communications is currently, and will always be, protected by tough rules that mean a warrant is needed before any interception could take place.

The law she refers to is 2000's Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act that bans intercepting the content of live communications illegal without a warrant (though sadly, not stored communications such as on answerphones for which 1984's Police & Criminal Evidence Act allows unwarranted interception).

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg went further, saying he is 'totally opposed to the government reading people's emails at will or creating a new central database, but we're not doing that'. 

The whole thing has certainly been handled abysmally by the Home Office. By placing the topic unexpectedly in the Queen's Speech, it both dangled titbits to a press hungry for more angles to attack the government on, as well as over-exaggerating the significance of a fairly trivial tweaking of the detail existing law, presumably to showboat the government's robust commitment to law and order ahead of the Olympics. The flames have been fuelled by first a day long silence by the Home Office before a tub-thumping attempt by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, in her latest attempt to emanate her political hero, Lady Thatcher.

The Man who Would be PM: David Davies, who has made
civil liberties his cause, was the first of several Tory
MPs to jump to conclusions about the proposals
Most interesting is the response of Liberty, a group who look at the legal aspects of civil liberties and are generally more restrained than more ideological groups like BBW. Director Shami Chakrabarti quickly responded with deeply emotive language, saying "this is more ambitious than anything that has been done before. It is a pretty drastic step in a democracy." Rather than put out a clear press release, their only official statement is a very short and somewhat diplomatically worded blog that merely questions whether the reports are true.

A point not being raised is that indiscriminate monitoring of communications by governments or others is a direct breach of Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Such a law as being reported is likely to be struck down by the courts and any attempt to overrule the courts would put us in direct violation of our membership of both the Council of Europe and the European Union. It would become a major diplomatic embarrassment to the UK and would subject us to very expensive fines as well as alienating us further in debates over European enlargement.

It is also important to note that under the current law, intercept evidence cannot be used in criminal trials. There is absolutely no suggestion that this will change. Somewhat surprisingly, Liberty have campaigned for intercept evidence to be admissible with appropriate safeguards but it is the security services who have opposed this, fearing their classified measures would become known to those they are monitoring.

With more CCTV cameras per head than any
other country, Britons cannot be blamed for
a little paranoia.
The misconception will be embarrassing to organisations like Open Rights Group, Liberty and BBW who have all misreported and sensationalised this story. It could even damage the reputation of Conservative party leadership hopeful David Davies who has made civil liberties his cause célèbre. Either this story will fizzle away or, more likely, it will quickly become very technical, a few opportunists will try and make political capital from it, and the public's attention will drift. The government's credibility on civil liberties will, however, take a further hit, ironically for one of their smaller offences.

We need this kind of outrage to safeguard our liberty from paternalistic and reactionary big government. ... This time, however, it is not an issue worth wasting your outrage upon. Perhaps if this government had made better progress on restoring the political freedoms stripped away by the last, civil libertarians would be more inclined to trust them. The most unexpected aspect is that after a decade of attacks on free speech, privacy and political rights, mass paranoia is only setting in now during a government committed, in a roundabout way, to greater liberty and safeguards against the state.

Still, we've all had a good think and the government knows it has to tread carefully - the people are watching. A little paranoia goes a long way....

Update - The obsessive misreporting continues and Nick Clegg has made further assurances, with the Prime Minister now denying connections with Labour's previous attempt to introduce a similar policy. The Home Secretary is focusing more on emphasising the (unproven) potential for catching peadophiles and terrorists, without a single mention of civil liberties.

The interesting thing is Leader of the Opposition, Ed Milliband's response. Miliband has not accepted that it is known what the government is proposing, thereby allowing him to oppose the policy itself. Instead, he is criticising (somewhat justifiably) the government's mishandling of the issue so far. This is very telling and is strong proof that no one really knows what is being proposed, as yet. 3/4/12

Update - The frenzied confusion sadly continues, despite a Home Office official's claim that the decision to include the proposals in the Queen's Speech had not been decided. It has also become clear that the legislation is proposed to be a draft one and therefore not likely to be subject of a three-line whip which would make it much harder for Lib Dem or Conservative MPs to vote against. 

Big Brother Watch took an unprecedented move of creating
this spoof of the Home Secretary and Conservative party logo
on a flag invoking the image of the USSR.
Channel 4 youth comedy show saw comedian Jimmy Carr describing it, in a more serious moment, as the government 'trying to read the whole of the Internet', while host Lauren Laverne (a former singer and radio host) misquoted the £200 million price tag as are rather incredible £2 billion.   

Online petition protest group Avaaz were even more shameless in their description, saying  "Cameron and Clegg are being forced to slow down their march to secure draconian powers to spy on what we do online" (somewhat overlooking the fact that the proposed legislation has originated from May's Home Office), and making a huge leap of logic by saying "a dangerous precedent for future actions that could include restricting access, tracking file-sharing and monitoring specific websites worldwide." Sadly, they don't give details as to how this would work, nor do they give details about their report of a poll that 94% are against te proposals.

The most interesting development is unprecedented level of dissent from the cabinet responsibility from the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. Following from an interview with the Guardian last February in which he claimed no government could be trusted on civil liberties, not even the one he had created, in an interview today he said that on the issue of political freedoms, he trusts the judgement of Liberty director
Shami Chakrabarti and Lib Dem MP Dr Julian Huppert over his own. He has also lashed out at his Conservative colleagues approach to legislation.
Nick Clegg has been hitting out at the Ministry of Justice and
his Conservative colleagues as a whole while seeking to
reiterate his and his party's commitment to political freedom.
This comes the day after the leak of his demands that Justice Secretary Ken Clarke water down his proposals to increase the number of secret trials in criminal cases in order to protect sources of British and American security services. The real story here could be the beginning of the end of the Coalition government's unity. 4/4/12

Something of an Easter gift by the Liberal Democrat Party President, Tim Farron, who today said that, though he would be suprised if the bill was drafted as reported, the party's MPs and Lords would 'kill' the bill unless it contained safegaurds that made Britain more liberal than under the dubious RIPA system. With Labour also now opposed to the reported measures, and several Conservatives against it, it is now almost certain that the bill will be written to woo those who want strong limits on the information the security services can access.
Only a fight-back from right-wing publications such as the Daily Mail is likely to put liberal reform at risk. 8/4/12

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Sympathy for ... Occupy LSX?

Like Occupy, the UK Suffragette Movement to gain
votes for women was widely criticised for the manner in which
the direct action tactics that they chose. 
Why, when it comes to protest, being idealistic, irritating and hard to define isn't really an issue...

In Egypt, they endure the bullets; in Syria, they risk torture and summary execution; in China, they are immolating themselves in ever greater numbers, directly giving their lives for an ounce of equality. In the West, they sit in tents and paint funny signs. It’s not because they’re uncommitted, but because that’s all they need to do. They endure the taunting of the right, the chilling weather and the risk of arbitrary arrest but they stay … and many of them even smile.

In the early days of mass media, the disaffected found that peaceful but irritating acts of protest gain the exposure that spread their message and damaged the reputation of those they targeted. While the Suffragettes were widely scorned for their tactics of disrupting public events and chaining themselves to railings, ‘right-thinking’ man and woman alike cheering the arrest of each, the freedom fighters  earned themselves the reverence of history.

And so it continued throughout the last century, through strikers, hippies, anti-war protesters, miners, Poll Tax rioters, animal welfare and green activists – all were ridiculed, feared and punished for their disturbing of the public mores. They dressed untidily, made lots of noise, blocked the public highway and failed to engage in a sophisticated way with the establishment. Yet, I would argue, the messages of each one enlightened the political debate and shifted public opinion in their favour.

While not without problems, the movement has been peaceful,
creative and often intelligent, getting its message across in
colourful ways, like this sculpture by the artist Banksy.
Britain remains such a psychologically conservative nation that we have an inherent distrust of radicalism in all its forms. Paradoxically, by allowing a society where free debate and protest are allowed, we open the floodgates to the radical movements that much of the world has generally been able to suppress. Whereas marches and strikes were once met with sabres and rifles, November 30th will be little more than a family day out for the lower-middle classes.

And now it’s happening again. When it became clear that the Occupy protesters were not going anywhere, the public’s first reaction was to get ticked off. They were accused of spoiling St Paul’s for the tourists and wedding parties; of sophistry with their lack of fully considered demands; and the news that some of the protesters were leaving their tents abandoned for the odd night at home was met with incredulity as if they were trying to dupe the public to undeserved sympathy.

More recently, they’re being perceived as engaging in some sort of squatters party, endlessly drinking in publicurinating in alleyways, filling their veins with heroin and infecting one another with AIDS in an orgy of leftie pleasure. It’s become so de rigueur for the chattering classes to mock them that even the apolitical millionaire entertainer, Chris Evans, strongly stated his distaste for them on his otherwise bland Radio 2 breakfast show.

It is a common attack the protesters for hypocrisy for enjoying
Starbucks coffee and iPads. The idea that you cannot seek to
reform a system while enjoying what benefits it offers is unfair.
But now their stamina to withstand weather, legal threats and time has been demonstrated, they are starting to get plaudits from among the radical edges of the establishment. Celebrity campaigners, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Opposition Leader and now the Business Secretary have all added their sympathy in recent weeks, each bringing a small drip of credibility to the movement. This support is more powerful than jeers from bores like Boris Johnson and it makes it that much harder for the police to move against them.

What much of the right-wing press is unwilling to admit is that there is something impressive about the creativity and responsible nature of the protesters. Unlike the self-serving public sector workers about to engage in the most disruptive strike action the UK has seen for a generation, the Occupy movement are not blackmailing the nation; unlike the destructive anarchy that has accompanied recent protest marches, their methods have tiptoed the minefield around the confusing web of criminal offences that would allow the police to sweep in and arrest them; unlike the petitioners and rally speakers and public meeting holders, they aren’t just in the news one day and forgotten the next.

Underneath the war of words, libertarians and Occupy
protesters agree that the current system is broken. To
dismiss Occupy for having no clear solutions mistakes the
mechanics of mass protest movements. 
Of course, the ill-conceived and unrealistic demands of the protesters mean that they will be judged by popular history as a failure. There will be no ending of greed, no destroying of capitalism, no removing of the profit incentive while simultaneously funding evermore social welfare. But their language and their arguments are already sneaking into our consciousness and our vocabulary, even in Westminster. They may be young, naive and economically illiterate but even those of us who realise markets are a mostly reliable force for good tend to agree that things have gone badly wrong and the system must be amended.

Unlike those striking for others to pay for the masses to continue generously funding their pensions, Occupy will win because their message resonates: the system is broken, the bankers got away with it and the innocent were punished. The next month is key: if they survive eviction, snowfall and the draw of a family Christmas, then their credibility will be assured. They will serve to remind us not to be distracted by the Eurozone and the credit agencies and all the foreign things we can do little about and they will serve to remind the bankers and politicians that the country is still awaiting justice.

Originally published for Liberal Vision on 28th November 2011.

Update: The protesters are awaiting to hear if they may appeal against their latest eviction order to leave St Paul's. With a decision due tomorrow (Wednesday 22nd), the press attention which has dissipated somewhat over the past months may well spring back into focus. 

The resolve of the protesters seemed not to have waned with a spokesman for the movement saying protesters may resist the eviction. This could give the police the justification to suppress the movement, though there is some hope that this may be avoided. Firstly, the protesters are saying that they have other sites ready to Occupy if necessary, allowing the potential for a peaceful withdrawal. More important, the High Court judge who made the most recent ruling declared protesters should be allowed to remain for up to 23 hours a day, even if forced to decamp. 

It is a testimony to the finer points of the British justice system that Lord Neuberger and senior judges have been so willing to defend freedom of protest against the powerful lobbying power of the City of London and the right-wing press. 21/2/12

So the St Paul's saga has today come to an end as, in a midnight raid, the police cleared protesters from the square. The clearance was mostly peaceful with only twenty arrests, which is better than the police's handling of other peaceful protests of late. 

St Paul's Cathedral put out a statement saying,  
"In the past few months, we have all been made to re-examine important issues about social and economic justice and the role the cathedral can play. We regret the camp had to be removed by bailiffs."

It will be interesting to see if the protesters continue to gather at St Paul's as the are legally allowed to do and whether this will gain them attention by allowing them to occupy another high profile target. After 137 days, the protesters seem fairly committed, with plans afoot for a mass occupation on May 5th, in tandem with Occupy groups throughout the world. 27/2/12

At War with the Web

Barack Obama, in his inaugural speech as president, spoke of how those unwilling to unclench their fists were 'on the wrong side of history'. This is true of the monarchists, the imperialists and the totalitarians whose battles against the tide saw them swept away by humans' resistance to arbitrary control just as soon as there existed the technical capability to do so. Cheap printing facilitated the downfall of the kings, cheap firearms the colonialists, and cheap media the communists.

Today, the Internet is in turn doing for the authoritarians, fatally undermining those willing to resort to the long arm of the law to restrain social and political revolution. Old politics, old customs and old business models are being swept aside at a tremendous rate. So much so, in fact, that in 2012, the battle to turn back time is even sucking in the political classes of the Less Unfree World.

Swales Tweeted that about 164 million people saw the
Wikipedia blackout page, telling us just a fraction of what
the US Congress passing SOPA could have meant for the
future of free information.
Like any technological revolution, the Digital Revolution is changing the limits of possibility. It allows us to reach a potential audience of billions for a price so close to being free, it often is. High quality media can be shared at the touch of a button and given the choice of getting it for free, most humans will opt to do so. Like any technological revolution, it fulfils human desires so well it is impossible to stop; like all good revolutions, it is tremendously empowering; and like most known revolutions, it is leading to war.

Those who understand the Internet were declaring victory a week ago as US Congressmen shelved SOPA and PIPA, two bills which would give the US authorities extraordinary powers to block websites containing pirated material. Wikipedia's co-founder Jimmy Wales compared the unprecedented Internet campaign to the Arab Spring and predicted, somewhat Whiggishly, that the Internet will continue to liberate. It's easy to scare off Congressman with an alliance of America's biggest tech giants, pro-democracy groups and millions of web-users throughout the world and a high profile protest from the world's most popular source of learning. A victory on the political front, however, overlooks the severe losses on the legal and diplomatic fronts.

First off, there is MegaUpload, the administrators of which are currently being prosecuted under criminal law for allowing strangers to upload data to store on their servers. The argument is that by making a profit from their website, they have gained from the spoils of crime. By this logic, council chiefs should face prison every time a shoplifter puts money in a parking meter, and shopkeepers should have their premises seized if ever they sell a ladder that is later used in a burglary.

While Poland saw a large protest campaign culminating in
politicians posing in Guy Fawkes masks (an act potentially
illegal under ACTA), little media attention was given to it in
the UK.
Then comes ACTA, an international version of the rejected SOPA, which treats copying media alongside the potentially fatal act of counterfeiting medicine. While public protests have seen the more draconian parts of the bill significantly watered down from leaked versions, it has been negotiated in a very secretive way despite seeking to create a powerful and international binding agreement. Most troubling is that ACTA waters down the legal principle of fair use that allows individuals to breach copyright in a reasonable way, like taking a photo of someone without having to pay money to whoever owns the rights to their t-shirt design. When the EU signed ACTA into law over the weekend, a leading official resigned in protest.

It is often said that this war is about applying Twentieth Century rules to the Twenty-First Century, but that would be unfair to our predecessors. What's common about all of these provisions is they treat the sharing of intellectual property as a crime, interchangeably counterfeiting and theft as this European Commission website chooses to. But counterfeiting requires deception and theft requires removal of ownership; copying and sharing have traditionally be seen as productive pursuits. Nor is this about 'protecting private property',  as those users who had uploaded data to MegaUpload for legal purposes face having their data destroyed.  

This is about protecting something very Twenty-First Century: enabling wealthy IP owners to by-pass the inconvenience of undergoing the judicial process and all the evidence it requires. Previously, if you drew a picture of Mickey Mouse and showed your friends, Disney would have had to pursue you in the civil courts for any loss of earnings they could reasonably prove. Why do that, when the police will close down the paper mill and bring criminal charges against the mill owners? By treating what the condescending vested interests would like us to call 'piracy' as a serious crime, it also allows the entertainment industry to avoid the kind of expensive innovations that are the stuff of progress.
As things stand, website seizure notices by the US
authorities will become a familiar image to us all.

This idea that a heavy hand can change human desire is a symptom of the same conservative megalomania that gives us the wars against terrorism and drugs, and those who wage them are so overly ambitious as to be blind to the inevitable failure of ignoring the reality that allows the problems to get out of hand in the first place. Even giants like YouTube lack the resources to effectively control the footage they store, with sixty hours worth of data being uploaded every second. As file-sharing websites and streaming websites are closed down, the likely outcome will be direct sharing via Internet forums and FTP clients. For the war to succeed, all forums, web pages and emails will need to be monitored closely, from Yahoo Mail, YouTube and Google Blogger to Facebook, Twitter and the BBC News website.

The implausibility regulating content in a net beneficial way is increased when you take into account that web-companies are also under pressure to comply with demands made by despotic nations. They will, however, make every effort to be seen to be complying when threatened with a big enough stick, as Twitter has indeed done in the past week by announcing it will ban different content in different countries. To do so, they will have to deploy the current best practice forged by the People's Republic of China: creating logarithms that regionally block controversial words like 'Arab Spring' or 'Wikileaks'. This clumsy attempt to make the world more harmonious, meant '#Egypt' itself was blocked at one point.

For smaller companies, the very real threat of criminal prosecution is likely to make them ban all user entered data from being shared entirely, turning the Internet into a place where small firms are only safe to provide personal data storage and shopping services. The MegaUpload trial will be the key test case for this, but many small file-sharing firms have already smelt the coffee and are closing this service before their own industry is rewarded with a prison sentence.
Anarchist hacking group Anonymous have been responding
to these recent developments with threatening videos and
acts of cyber-terrorism. Like real wars cause blowback,
cyber-wars could cause a great deal of real world harm.
Most concerning is that SOPA sought to criminalise the use of tools used to get around web-blocking, such as VPNs, Proxy Servers and FTP clients. These tools are famously used to allow teenagers to access pornography and can be used by organised crime and terrorist cells to avoid detection; on the other hand, they allow for free speech and access to Western learning in countries that seek to manipulate and control their citizens, playing a major role in the Arab Spring and other such movements. The justification to target these tools to prevent crime is the same justification once used against printing presses, the freedom of movement and mass literacy; and its equally true of the memory stick, the telephone or the pencil.

Thus the very act of penalising those who inadvertently carry prohibited data, the collateral damage can only be huge, sacrificing online privacy, free speech and the ability of the Internet to be a forum for creativity, learning and innovation. Geeky teenagers, hi-tech businesses and political activists thus find themselves bed-fellows with criminals and terrorists; US legislators, European diplomats and Hollywood are taking measures that shore up blasphemy laws, corrupt dictators and genocidal regimes. While the complex, mobile and mostly anonymous nature of the Internet means it is the former group who will always be several steps ahead, this is a war that no one can win.

Let's not exaggerate what's at stake - piracy will not bring down the entertainment industry. People will always make films and music, there will always be a market for live performance and merchandise and wherever there's a want, there's a profit to be made. But let's say for argument's sake that the choice is between new music and new films, and the ability to be able to use the Internet to share media with your friends, to be a dynamic space where ideas are shared, adapted and improved, and where your words, your actions and your social circles are not recorded, monitored and punished by the world's security agencies. Which side of history will you choose to be on?

Update - As today's news breaks a story about FBI and UK police officers being hacked while discussing  an operation against hackers, the BBC have this interesting article about hacktivists like Anonymous.  Most relevant to this article is a quote from one member of the online group, who says "I see this as becoming a war. Not a conventional war. This is a war of ideas." 3/2/2012

Update: The arrest of several members of the Anonymous network has led to a spate of retribution attacks by the Antisec group affiliated with Anonymous as web-war continues to flame. This BBC article notes that, beside infiltrating communication between the FBI and Scotland Yard and attacking PayPal and other web-firms, the anarchistic collective have also taken on the (at the time) despotic governments of Tunisia and Yemen. 7/3/2012

Update: The Guardian newspaper are running a very interesting series of articles entitled 'the Battle for the Web'. Highlights include this interactive map detailing censorship hotspots and an article on how Putin's Russia, having suspended democracy too late for a comprehensive Chinese-style firewall, is finding other ways to persecute liberal bloggers.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Deutsch TV vs Der Dystopischen

During the Feltham and Heston Parliamentary by-election, I found myself chosen to participate in an interview with German TV news, commenting on David Cameron's use of the veto in discussions with other heads of state as to how to solve the euro crisis.

You'll find me 90 seconds in, though if you don't speak German, you'll have to strain to hear what I'm saying, so here's a transcript:

"I think there are definitely some Eurosceptics who will be celebrating today and I think that's very short-sighted. But at the end of the day, there's no love lost between us. We're not particularly fond of the Conservatives and they're not particularly enthusiastic about being in coalition with us. It's a government of needs, not a government of enthusiasm."

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Rt Hon David Laws MP vs the Dystopian

Last November, I was lucky enough to attend 'A Conversation with David Laws' at the Institute of Economic Affairs, where the senior Liberal Democrat and former Chief Sectary to the Treasury was interviewed by the ex-Liberal Democrat, Downing Street advisor and libertarian director of the the IEA, Mark Littlewood.

During the fifty minute interview, I was one of three guests to have their question put to Mr Laws. So does the free marketeer and the man behind the economically liberal 'Orange Book' think the Lib Dems' alliance of liberals and social democrats could survive a policy move to liberalise competition in public services?

To see the whole interview, go to http://vimeo.com/32765082.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Keeping Protest Civilised: The Modern Rules

It would of course be hopelessly naive to assume there was ever a golden age of protest in Britain. In pre-modern times, the insecurity of kings meant most protests were ended with a swift execution for the ringleaders at the very least, with an unpleasant spell in the Tower of London for those who should know better.
Effective protest movements have always been intimidating
to much of the public, prompting the authorities to respond
in heavy-handed ways. The shooting of American students
 peacefully protesting the Vietnam war is just one
of the Western examples in recent decades.
In most places, at most times, the establishment responds in the same manner. It can take a variety of forms but in their simplest form are known as 'New Measures'. They are rarely initiated in democratic parliaments and are prone to being struck down in the impartial courts. They emerge, almost without exception, from insecure governments and a bureaucratic police force.

Despite the Coalition government's pledge to restore the right to peaceful protest, the number of these new measures emerging from the Home Office and various police forces seems to have increased in the past twelve months, following the fairly insignificant disorder of the student riots last autumn. So what are the rules that a modern protester need follow?

1. Don't be disruptive                                         Punishment: Arrest and prosecution
Those shocking scenes of terrifying dissent which lead
to a failed attempt to prosecute 145 protesters.
There was a time when trespass was a civil offence, and a rather burdensome process would follow to remove you. First, the landowner would have to request you leave, then the police would give you a warning and, finally, you would be physically forced from the premises. Any significant loss incurred by the landowner would lead to a lawsuit to determine compensation.

Yet in 1994, 'New Measures' were introduced whereby trespass mixed with being irritating could lead to imprisonment. Of course, it never has, as the poorly drafted law rarely makes it past the Crown Prosecution Service and judges have never found such punishment to be proportional given the good intentions of most protesters. However, as last March's mass arrest of anti-tax avoidance protesters at  Fortnum & Mason demonstrated, it is an excellent way to deter individuals from future action. All it takes is a night in the cells, a court appearance and a note on your record available to any employer you may have the audacity to want a job with.

2. Don't steal the limelight                                      Punishment: Pre-emptive arrest
Police response to a Whitehall gathering of
nationalist protesters on Remembrance Day.
Before big patriotic occasions like the national celebrations, the Chinese authorities like to focus the efforts on high-visibility policing, identity checks and re-arresting known dissidents. Thankfully, this impressive dedication to event planning has not gone beyond notice of our own authorities, who pre-arrested several individuals planning republican protests on the day of the Royal Wedding. Three had actually been granted permission by the police themselves to carry out their protest. This week, the Home Office announced it had gone so swimmingly well, that New Measures, including raids for political posters, would be used against protesters at next year's Olympics in Beij-... er, London.

Of course, this rule doesn't just apply to lefties. Last week, some English Defence League demonstrators had gathered near the Cenotaph to mark Remembrance Day. When the Met Police heard a rumour that they planned to counter-protest the Occupy LSX group, they swooped in to arrest all 170 before they could get within a mile of the camp. The establishment doesn't like competition for headlines.

Undercover PC Mark Kennedy with one of his better
protest-related injuries.
3. Do what you're told, when you're told       
Punishment: Arrest/broken bones

It seems every protest these days leads to video footage of police taking action against protesters who answer back or just seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes, this includes journalists, observers and the odd undercover policeman. Perhaps the most telling part of Channel 4's Confessions of an Undercover Cop was that PC Mark Kennedy had his spine broken by the police for trying to protect a female activist from a similar fate.

Britain's protest intelligence go-to-man  said of the experience: "I felt embarrassed to be a police officer. ... The solidarity and the love I received from the people I was infiltrating brought tears to my eyes. ... It was the stamping on my back and my hips that broke my spine."

4. Don't get too close                              Punishment: Grievous Bodily Harm/Death

66 year-old German protester Dietrich Wagner blinded for
life by a water cannon for attending a protest in Stutgart. 
The saddest thing about the killing of Ian Tomlinson in 2009 was that he wasn't actually involved in the protest. The blow that was administered was simply routine as officers moved back a troublesome crowd. With water-cannon back on the list of government approved New Measures and plastic bullets deployed just in case a recent student march turned ugly, it is likely more deaths of innocent bystanders will make the news in upcoming years.

5.Don't make police look unprepared                        Punishment: General taxation

Was it the thought of being shot that kept Black Bloc trouble-makers away from last week's student protests or the buddying up scheme between protesters and uniformed police? 4,000 officers may seem a little over the top for 10,000 protesters but at least the taxpayer ensured that no senior policeman risked his job.

A line of police heads a students protest march through the City of London during a protest in London, Britain, 09 November 2011. Britains students came out in force to demonstrate against rising student tuition fees and public spending cuts.  EPA/ANDY RAIN
November's student protest cost hundreds of thousands of
pounds on its own. This is only the fiscal price of
 a jittery police force.
And what of the recent mass arrests? Should the taxpayer really pick up the bill for arresting 140 protesters, prosecuting dozens and constructing a successful case against ten (who got let off with £1,000 in costs)? Given that the store lost over £50,000 in lost trade, it seems a civil suit would have been more restorative and cheaper for us all. 

This is small change compared to the £3 million for spying on and failing to prosecute environmental activists for considering demoing a power station. Said Mark Kennedy on the Channel 4 documentary: "You're not infiltrating people selling drugs or guns or selling children to the sex trade. You're infiltrating people who have a social conscience. ... Paranoia levels in the activist community must be going through the roof."

On all these cases, the centre-ground has responded with a confused grumble. There is shameful silence from those elements of the right-wing who usually flare with rage at any sign of the state gagging their contentious opinions or purchasing Kit-Kats with taxpayers money. This is the price we pay for punishing the unsophisticated riff-raff who dare to influence politics without discussion luncheons and wine-reception report launches.
The casual pepper spraying of Occupy protesters in
California shows how little has changed in policing standards
 despite the democratic advances Western nations have seen.

This is the price we pay to keep our democracy civilised.

Update 21/11/11: As if to back up my point about plastic bullets, one newspaper reported today that a Egyptian cameraman covering the 'restoration of order'/'clampdown' (delete as per ideology) was blinded by plastic bullets.

Update 25/1/12: Following up for an earlier announcement that the police will prepare for the Olympics by raiding suspected protesters houses to confiscate banners and placards, Theresa May today announced Olympic security will be focusing on confiscating camping materials from those attending Olympic events. It's difficult to see how screening for tents won't leave less resources for screening for weapons and explosives, but tents clearly are apparently a 'threat' according to the Home Secretary.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Freedom, Order & the Conservative Fallacy

Compare the following two quotes, if you would be so good:
    UK Prime Minister David Cameron
  •  “Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. ... We are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these Web sites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.”

  • “It is my passionate conviction that all human rights should carry full force online - not just the right to privacy, but the right to freedom of expression. Cultural differences are not an excuse to water down human rights. We reject the view that government suppression of the internet, phone networks and social media at times of unrest is acceptable.”

  • The first is from Prime Minister David Cameron, spoken on 11th August 2011, in the wake of a short period of rioting in cities around the UK; the latter is from Foreign Secretary William Hague, spoken on the 1st November 2011, in the wake of a long period of rioting in cities around the Less Free World.  His audience included officials from China, Russia and several Arabic states.
Foreign Secretary William Hague speaks in the Internet Freedom session at the London Cyberspace Conference at Westminster
Foreign Secretary William Hague

Accusations that the government has done something of a major U-turn on the legitimacy of web-blocking may seem a little unfair to the less astute reader. Cameron was, of course talking of those who 'we know  are plotting violence, disorder and criminality'. Hague, on the other hand, is talking of  universal rights that may legitimately be suspended in accordance with international law in order to meet 'the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society' (Article 29 of the UN Charter of Human Rights).

So can the government's positions of last August and today be logically reconciled? The answer is only after a great deal of splitting semantic hairs.

Ever the skilful polemicist, Cameron knows that 'we' invokes the idea of collective action, but the 'we' he's referring to is in fact the bureaucrats of the state-security operatus, not a jury of peers. The suggestion that the plots of the suspected miscreant are 'known' to such organs of state suggests that the intentions of the miscreant are understood to be beyond all doubt or at least beyond all reasonable doubt. Given the former is physiologically, philosophically and metaphysically impossible, we can assume Cameron was referring to the latter.

The problem is, 'reasonable doubt' is highly subjective and so, in the (Comparatively) Free World of which the UK likes to be seen as a member, we have an independent and expert system of due judicial process to consider just this. The process is lengthy even without the necessary appeals by which we measure our society's typical concept of what is 'just'. 

For the two statements to be anything but contradictory requires Cameron's original statement to have referred to web-blocking not in the immediacy of a riot, but only when the plotting is ongoing and the legal process has given the suspect a fair trial.  If this is what he meant, he made no effort to correct the widespread interpretation in the domestic and international press at the time. Furthermore, why would the Home Secretary have felt the need to hastily organise a meeting with representatives from the social networks to discuss the plans if they were to have no relevance to the immediate threat of spontaneous rioting? 

Recent riots in Egypt, China and Britain were strongly different in
nature but all three governments set their sights upon web-blocking.  

Cameron and May are both known critics of the application of universal human right laws to the UK and, sadly, it seems our government's willingness to lecture others on the illegitimacy of curtailing human rights is the old evil of cultural relativism. When Syria, China or Zimbabwe desire to clamp down on free expression and dissent, it is done for the same reason that the UK or the USA desire to - for a traditional vision of 'morality, public order and the general welfare'. The difference is we have differing traditions of the whens, whys and hows of our cultures' respective repressions.

Like Assad, Putin and Hu Jintao, Cameron and May identify as conservatives and it is unsurprising they are prone to the reactionary authoritarianism. Inherent to the doctrine is an emotionally charged affirment in the objective superiority of the established moral order and radical dissent is seen as a direct threat to this. When people take to the streets for whatever reason, the risk-averse conservative will despair the suspension of order,  no matter the message or root causes at the heart of dissent. A single terror suspect or a small group of protesters becomes for them a harbinger of total social breakdown. This reactionary tendency to act 'in the national interest' makes a short-sighted judgement that overlooks the harm to general welfare that arises from the breach of international treaties or legal fundamentals like habeus corpus or innocence until proven guilty.  

Without the certainty that Britain will keep to its human rights treaties and legal principles, no British citizen should feel secure. Furthermore, Britain's international credibility is hindered as those we must cooperate with and influence remember our broken promises and moral hypocrisy. It is unlikely a conservative government like ours can fully comprehend the value of universal rights and the just process of law required to balance them. After all, human rights and due process are both products of liberalism, with its inherent open-mindedness and faith in mankind. 

Conservative Justice Secretary Ken Clarke and Home Secretary Theresa May recently
gave embarrassing public exposure to this fallacy, when May's attacks on judicial
 interpretations of the 1998 Human Rights Act were dismissed as 'childish' by her colleague.    

Update:  The furore over radical Islamic cleric and alleged Al-Qaeda, Abu Qatada, is the last incarnation of a belief among conservatives that the ability to control takes precedence over either the protection of human rights or the rule of law. 

The cleric was illegally detained by UK authorities in 2002 and, following a court order freeing him in 2005, has been in extra-judicial imprisonment for several years as the authorities battle to deport him. No evidence has been found to charge the cleric with a criminal offence and ECHR judges have declared he cannot be returned to Jordan due to the high risk he will be tortured or imprisoned on the basis of information gained through torture. 

Without the support of Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke, the Prime Minister and Home Secretary have made high profiles speeches against the cleric, including a sppech by Theresa May in which she referred to Qatada as a 'terrorist' (though he has never been found guilty of this allegation) and said his place was in a foreign prison cell. Conservative MPs have been demanding the government ignore British and European Law by deporting him anyway.

To breach our binding diplomatic agreements and legal principles is claimed to be 'in the national interest'.  All for the sake of a man deemed by the Prime Minister to be dangerous to the British public but of whom after ten years still no compelling evidence has been found in order for him to be prosecuted. 8/2/2012