On the topic of the not-Interception Modernisation Programme, which I shall geekily call the Pling-Imp from now on, Dr. Julian Huppert MP asked a question in Prime Ministers Questions on Wednesday on this topic:
Can the Prime Minister reassure the House that the Government have no plans to revive Labour’s intercept modernisation programme, whether in name or in function, and that he remains fully committed to the pledge in the coalition agreement to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties and to roll back state intrusion?
The response from the Prime Minister was somewhat more equivocal than I would have liked and didn’t really address the point:
I would argue that we have made good progress on rolling back state intrusion in terms of getting rid of ID cards and in terms of the right to enter a person’s home. We are not considering a central Government database to store all communications information, and we shall be working with the Information Commissioner’s Office on anything we do in that area.
Even Labour only briefly considered the centralised database and it had been dropped by May 2009, so this isn’t really news. I understand that Dr.Huppert has submitted followup written questions, which he referred to on Twitter and also in yesterday’s debate on the Internet and Privacy. Unfortunately it seems that questions are not published until the answers are submitted so we do not yet know what has been asked.
Edited to add: Since I put up this post, I’ve been contacted by the Open Rights Group in relation to the below paragraphs saying that they didn’t intend to suggest we were spreading misinformation, but that we were being supplied with misinformation.
So, does it sound like the Pling-IMP is back? The Open Rights Group are “convinced” that this is the case. Following republication of parts of my blog posts on Lib Dem Voice, they went on to quite publicly suggest we were spreading misinformation. This annoys me for two reasons. Firstly, the ORG are guilty of spinning the facts to the point of misinformation themselves. Their original petition, which they are still advertising widely, mentions a two billion bound price tag which we now know is inaccurate. The wording of the petition also suggests government interception, when of course we all know that was ruled out back in 2009 in favour of mandating ISPs to perform the interception.
Secondly, and more importantly, although I expect random and unsubstantiated attacks from the more tribal members of the opposition I would regard the Open Rights Group as being on the same side. I can understand their suspicion of anything that comes of Government given we did have over a decade of increasingly illiberal measures, but there’s no indication that the current crop of ministers have gone native.
For anyone from the Open Rights Group that’s reading this: Right now, you are annoying members of the party in power most likely to be sympathetic to your cause and you’re annoying the technical staff at ISPs. We are on your side and we would like your help. Please quit with the hyperbole aimed at us, because if we give up and go home you’ll be dealing with the Conservatives and Business leaders instead.
Yesterday’s debate in Parliament gives you a clue to the Conservative view on this. Although not as keen on state control in general as the last government, they are inclined to care more about Google Streetview because no business relationship exists between the public being photographed and Google. As soon as you have a business relationship – customer and ISP – they really don’t seem quite so interested. After all, shouldn’t competition within the market should deal with any issues?
Back to the Pling-IMP. I am a fan of evidence-based policy but if there is any evidence that it’s back, it is not being shared it with us. All we have to go on so far is that there is some sort of wide-ranging consultation afoot, with no price tag either high or low attached. It’s being conducted by the same Home Office communications group that undertook the original IMP study, but that’s hardly surprising as I would not have expected the Milk Marketing Board to have been given this task.
The Prime Minister’s answer definitely concerns me. I would have preferred a statement that they are not currently planning on asking ISPs to capture any more information or store what they have for any longer. But it’s not worrying enough that I’m going to get all righteous before the consultation is even out.
After all, it’s still just as impractical to achieve now as it was last year.
I have no doubt that whatever consultation is released, there will be those that seize upon any little word in it that suggests interception of any sort might perhaps be changed in some way other than completely getting rid of it. I do hope that does not happen too much because it detracts from making changes for the better and what is going on now is bad and needs to be changed. We should not be locking up teenagers for possibly forgetting passwords. Nor should the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act give City and Borough Councils the same powers as police and the security services to access information held by service providers.
The problems in this area stem in part from misunderstanding about what is possible. “Making better use of data we already have” is one item I’m told is definitely within scope of the upcoming consultation, but it’s hard to be constructive when one is rabidly denouncing any attempt to discuss the matter before we even know the questions.
We have a new government in power and should be encouraging debate on existing laws, not stifling it.