|Law To Monitor Public's
Email In Offing?
by SHAHED SADULLAH
If people in Pakistan are wondering whether they have got the most inept government in the world, they may be rest assured that in the words of the guy in the movie 'Close encounters of the third kind', they are not alone. We here in Britain are agonising on exactly the same topic after the Tory-LibDem coalition announced plans to introduce a new law that would allow police and security services to extend their monitoring of the public's email and social media communications. It is expected that the proposed system will allow security officials to scrutinise who is talking to whom and exactly when the conversations are taking place, but not the content of messages. Labour tried to introduce a similar system using a central database tracking all phone, text, email and internet use but that was ditched in 2009.
Given that the overwhelming share of personal communication these days is either through the internet or mobile phone, this measure would mean that the presence of Big Brother would be all pervasive and in a society so conscious and proud of its history of freedom, this sort of thing is about as popular as load-shedding in Pakistan.
The government's argument is that such a measure is essential given that like everyone else, criminals too are resorting to the internet and mobile phones increasingly to communicate with each other, and the two types of criminals that the Home Secretary has specifically named are paedophiles and terrorists. Even the most gullible would be under no allusion here that the bit about the paedophiles is a sop; the actual concentration is going to be on terrorism and there are no prizes for guessing which faith community that means. Yet, it is not the Muslim community that is raising its voice against this proposed measure but civil liberties groups and the media. It is argued that the agencies already have the powers in this regard and that such a blanket provision permitting agencies to eavesdrop, without any reference to a judicial or magisterial order, is way over the top.
The proposal puts the LibDems in yet another tight spot, although it may be reasonably argued that by now they have been in so many tight spots that they may even start to feel positively uncomfortable if they are not already. But there are even some Tories who are not comfortable with this and the possible political repercussions of it, and therefore the bill, as and when it comes, will have a rough ride through Parliament.
Even David Davies, the former shadow Home Secretary who ran against David Cameron for the Conservative party leadership, said the proposals represented an unnecessary extension of the power of the state to "snoop" on its citizens.
"It is not focusing on terrorists or on criminals, it is absolutely everybody," he told the BBC. "Historically, governments have been kept out of our private lives. Our freedom and privacy has been protected by using the courts by saying 'If you want to intercept, if you want to look at something, fine, if it is a terrorist or a criminal go and ask a magistrate and you'll get your approval'. You shouldn't go beyond that in a decent, civilised society but that is what is being proposed."
In fact, there is a strong body of legal opinion that feels much before it gets to Parliament, it may face a challenge in the European Courts. With a general strengthening of individuals' rights already planned under reforms to EU data protection laws, the European Commission is likely to be willing to clamp down on any new privacy-invading laws in the UK. As it is, the European Commission is not convinced that the British government is playing with an entirely straight bat when it comes to matters pertaining to human rights.
So the question that is being asked is why is the government doing this? Is it that they are so politically naive or inept that they are unable to fathom the political unpopularity that such a move will give them, or is it that they are totally out of touch with what the public thinks or is it that they simply do not care?
Most punters have expressed a liking for the second option. It is said that very rarely in recent times has a government in the UK consisted of so many upper class public school 'toffs', a class that is oblivious of any world beyond its own and feels that even if other worlds exist, they do not matter. The belief about its own superiority is so deeply ingrained that it is unshakable and therefore any realisation that it may not be on the right path is simply not a part of its consciousness. But measures like these, coming on the back of the granny tax, the reduction of tax for the richest, the party fund raising scam in which a senior Tory was caught on video camera by a journalist saying that donations of £3200,000 and more could get a private dinner with the Prime Minister, the tuition fees and the general attack on the National Health Service with a double edged axe, all these are perhaps taking their toll. In a poll by Time magazine asking readers for their opinion on who should be included in the magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world, the results of the voting for Prime Minister David Cameron are not of the sort that he would like to show his Mum. While 6882 people have voted in favour of his inclusion in the list, 8927 have voted against it. By contrast, 97.831 people had voted in favour of Imran Khan's inclusion in the list while 20,605 had voted against it (at the time of writing of this piece). Even though the credibility of this poll has been badly compromised by the fact that 198,082 people had voted in favour of Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujerat, (while 76,478 had voted against him), the figures for Mr Cameron cannot be brushed aside for they do tell a story. Unfortunately for him, it is not the sort of story he would like to read to his kids at bedtime.