It’s been just over a month since Tim Berners-Lee appeared on-stage at the Olympic opening ceremony wearing a white suit and tweeting about how the world wide web is “for everyone.”
However, speaking last week at the launch of the World Wide Web Foundation’s global Web Index, Berners-Lee sounded a more ominous note, taking aim at the government’s Draft Communications Data Bill which is due to be reviewed by parliament in the coming months. He warned that if Britain began “snooping” on its citizens and blocking access to websites, it would be going against the vision of the internet that he supports.
Theresa May’s bill, which proposes to force operators to record extensive details of customer’s digital communications, has also been attacked by Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia. He called the government’s plans “technologically incompetent” and promised to encrypt British data connections to Wikipedia should the bill be passed into law.
Bloggers and civil liberty groups have been chattering away all summer about the issue, but the story has only recently grabbed more mainstream attention. What is it about this bill that seems so problematic?
Let’s begin with Theresa May’s own foreword. She stresses that the information to be recorded “does not include the content” of communications. This is a misleading reassurance. The website addresses we visit, the search terms we plug into Google and the social media connections we make are enormously revealing in themselves. The content of messages is not at all necessary to build up an extremely intimate picture of who we are and where our interests lie.
The national security risks which would sneak in alongside this bill are enormous and unaddressed by a government which appears to believe that the more it knows about us, the safer we are. Yes, some of this information may be helpful in fighting crimes and terrorism— but we must consider the cost. The legislature is still adjusting to the embarrassment of nearly sending a man to jail for making a throwaway joke on Twitter. If the #TwitterJokeTrial saga proves anything it is that interpretation of online communications is not yet the establishment’s strong point.
Even if the government could be trusted to chew through all the data this bill would allow them to accumulate, there remains the concern that the information could fall into the wrong hands. Anarchic groups like Anonymous have already proved themselves capable of breaking into highly secure databases and making their findings public.
In January I wrote about online protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) which was due to be passed by the American congress. In the end, SOPA failed partly because of online outcry. A similar, widespread discussion needs to take place now regarding the Draft Communications Data Bill.
When Occupy protesters were encamped outside St Paul’s, Theresa May told the BBC’s Question Time audience she thought they ought to move on. The “image of the UK,” she argued, was being damaged. It is clear that this government sees protest as amateur dramatics which have little or no impact on policy-making, but exist simply to salve the consciences of politically minded citizens.
This draft bill deserves a public debate and a detailed discussion of its potential consequences—good and bad. The web is one place where Britons can protest without having their complaints swept under the carpet. At least, not yet.
Chris Baraniuk writes about information technology and society at http://www.themachinestarts.com