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This page provides occasional items, linked to the original articles, as we attempt to keep up with the rapidly changing situation on civil liberties.
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More on the Digital Economy Bill

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:32 pm on 24 November, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, democracy and the rule of law, British politics.
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Further to my earlier article about the Digital Economy Bill, I shall now consider the disconnection scheme set out in sections 4 to 14 (which amend the Communications Act 2003) in more detail:

  • Section 4 requires internet service providers to notify subscribers of reported infringements of copyright where the copyright owner has provided an IP-address and a time for the alleged infringement. (The copyright owner isn’t necessarily told who the subscriber is at this point.) “Notification” is deemed to have occurred if the ISP has sent an email to the email address they have for the subscriber or sent a letter to the postal address they have.
  • Section 5 requires an ISP to send information to copyright owners indicating which of the owners’ infringement reports relate to which subscriber.
  • Sections 6 to 9 set out the details of how the “initial obligations” codes (sections 4 and 5 operate under these codes, i.e. an ISP must be subject to such a code for section 4 and 5 to apply), will operate.
  • Section 10 sets out how the Secretary of State must go about assessing whether to require an ISP to limit or suspend the internet access of particular subscribers.
  • Section 11 allows the Secretary of State to impose obligations on an ISP to limit or suspend some subscribers’ internet access.
  • Sections 12 and 13 set out how codes relating to the obligations to limit internet access are drawn up.
  • Section 14 allows the Secretary of State to impose a fine of upto £250K on ISPs that contravene obligations to inform subscribers or limit their access.

There are several points to note about this:

  • The copyright owner need not provide evidence of the infringement, merely the IP address and the time at which it happened. That’s all that’s required for the ISP to be obliged to send notifications to a subscriber.
  • Copyright owners can make such reports to ISPs if it appears to them that the subscriber to an internet access service has infringed copyright or if the subscriber allowed such infringement to occur. This may have implications for internet cafes, people providing anonymous access to the internet and anyone who provides public access to wi-fi, since they may be deemed to be “allowing” copyright infringement.
  • There seems to be no allowance for the possibility that someone’s machine has been compromised and used for copyright infringement, or for the fact that IP addresses don’t always indicate which machine downloaded a particular file.
  • The sending of notifications and the limiting of access can all occur without taking someone to court. The Secretary of State decides whether or not subscribers’ internet access should be limited, after a period where warnings have been sent. This opens the door to politically motivated decisions.

Further reading:

Enabling clause in the new Digital Economy Bill

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:41 pm on 20 November, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, democracy and the rule of law, British politics.
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The government has finally published its Digital Economy Bill, which has started its progress through Parliament in the House of Lords.

This bill confirms earlier reports that it would contain proposals (sections 4 to 11) to disconnect users from the internet after they’ve received warnings for copyright infringement (but without any judicial process).

Exactly how they’ll detect whether a user’s downloads are illegal copyrighted material is unclear, but could easily be an excuse for introducing wholesale monitoring of the content of users’ internet traffic. Section 17 is a blatant enabling clause that it seems to me could be used for exactly this purpose:

(1) The Secretary of State may by order amend Part 1 or this Part for the purpose of preventing or reducing the infringement of copyright by means of the internet, if it appears to the Secretary of State appropriate to do so having regard to technological developments that have occurred or are likely to occur.

(2) The following provisions apply to the power conferred by this section.

(3) Subsections (4) to (6) do not limit that power.

(4) The power may be exercised so as to make new provision or to amend or repeal provision (whenever made).

(5) The power may be exercised so as to—

(a) confer a power or right or impose a duty on any person;
(b) modify or remove a power, right or duty of any person;
(c) require a person to pay fees.

(6) The power includes power to—

(a) make different provision for different cases;
(b) make transitional or saving provision;
(c) make any consequential amendment, repeal or revocation of provision (whenever made) contained in or made under an Act.

(7) The power does not include power to create or modify a criminal offence.

Thus these orders can be used to alter any legislation and confer any powers and any duties for the purpose of preventing or reducing copyright infringement, the only limitation being they can’t create or modify criminal offences.

These orders would be made by statutory instrument requiring a single vote in each of the Houses of Parliament. If this Bill becomes law, the Secretary of State will be handed considerable power which can be used with minimal parliamentary scrutiny. Sadly this is typical of much recent legislation which has weakened the roll of parliament and strengthened the power of the executive via such techniques.

Does the EU give a damn about the rule of law?

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:48 pm on 15 November, 2009.
Categories democracy and the rule of law, British politics, European Union politics.
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Christopher Booker writing in the Telegraph claims:

On October 31 the five-year term of all the Brussels Commissioners expired. Under the Treaty they should therefore have stepped down. But because of the hiatus before the newly-ratified Constitution comes into force next month, the existing Commissioners simply decided to stay on until a new Commission is appointed. When Lord Willoughby pointed out that there is no authorisation for this in the Treaty and that they are therefore acting illegally, the former Commissioner Lord Kinnock leaped up to claim that the Commissioners were perfectly entitled to stay in office under Article 216 of the Treaty.

Had Lord Windbag actually looked at the Treaty before opening his mouth, he would have seen that the sole purpose of Article 216 is to lay down that any Commissioner found “guilty of serious misconduct’ or who “no longer fulfils the conditions required for the performance of his duty” must be “compulsorily retired”. Since the current Commissioners “no longer fulfil the conditions required”, they should all thus be retired immediately.

DNA to be held for 6 years in England and Wales

[I earlier misread the article. I thought they’d decided to retain for violent/sexual offences for upto 6 years, but actually they’ve changed from earlier proposals where such retention was for 12 years with 6 years blanket retention, to “merely” 6 years blanket retention].

Last year the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the British government’s policy on DNA retention of everyone who is arrested in England and Wales. The government has finally announced their new policy, namely that DNA will be held for 6 years rather than indefinitely, as was the case prior to the ECHR ruling or for 6 to 12 years as in their earlier proposals. However it is 6 years retention for all offences, no matter how trivial, and thus more draconian than anywhere else. And remember this applies to anyone arrested, not merely those charged or convicted of an offence.

Petition against secret evidence.

Posted by James Hammerton @ 1:06 am on 7 November, 2009.
Categories democracy and the rule of law, British politics, accountability.
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David Mery has set up a petition against the use of secret evidence in British courts (e.g. in proceedings surrounding control orders).

Good news for once!

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:28 pm on 31 October, 2009.
Categories democracy and the rule of law, British politics, accountability.
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Jack Straw has rejected the proposals to cut the costs of elections reported in the Times.

Threat to voting in cut-price poll plan

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:37 pm on .
Categories democracy and the rule of law, British politics.
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The Times reports:

Thousands of polling stations would be closed and voting hours reduced under a plan to cut the cost of elections.

Other proposals include cutting staff, replacing polling cards with e-mail requests, increasing candidates’ deposits, fixed-term parliaments and reducing security at election counts.

The options, outlined in a working paper drawn up by the Ministry of Justice for the Treasury, are designed to save up to £65 million. They were condemned last night as a “threat to democracy that would save peanuts”.

Critics said that they would lead to even lower election turnouts when the standing of MPs is at an all-time low after the expenses scandal. Voter turnout has been falling steadily over the decades. Only 61 per cent of the electorate voted in the 2005 general election compared with 84 per cent in 1950.

The plan to close stations and lay off staff could have an impact as soon as next year’s general election as it does not require legislation. Councils may decide not to put up hundreds of temporary polling stations that allow voters to cast their ballot paper within walking distance of their home. Laws would have to be introduced to change voting hours or remove polling cards.

Councils get power to seize assets over minor offences

The Times Online reports:

The right to search homes, seize cash, freeze bank accounts and confiscate property will be given to town hall officials and civilian investigators employed by organisations as diverse as Royal Mail, the Rural Payments Agency and Transport for London.

The measure, being pushed through by Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, comes into force next week and will deploy some of the most powerful tools available to detectives against fare dodgers, families in arrears with council tax and other minor offenders.

The radical extension of the Proceeds of Crime Act, through a Statutory Instrument which is not debated by parliament, has been condemned by the chairman of the Police Federation. Paul McKeever said that he was shocked to learn that the decision to hand over “intrusive powers” to people who were not police was made without consultation or debate.

NB: The Proceeds of Crime Act allows police to seize assets from people without having to have them convicted of an offence, they merely need to persuade a judge that, on balance of probability, the assets were acquired “unlawfully”. Assets can be frozen prior to the court proceedings, thus preventing you from using your money to defend yourself.

Political activists’ details recorded on databases of “domestic extremists”.

Apparently, entirely peaceful, legal protest can lead to your details being recorded on databases of “domestic extremists”:

An investigation by the Guardian can reveal:

• The main unit, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU), runs a central database which lists thousands of so-called domestic extremists. It filters intelligence supplied by police forces across England and Wales, which routinely deploy surveillance teams at protests, rallies and public meetings. The NPOIU contains detailed files on individual protesters who are searchable by name.

• Vehicles associated with protesters are being tracked via a nationwide system of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) cameras. One man, who has no criminal record, was stopped more than 25 times in less than three years after a “protest” marker was placed against his car after he attended a small protest against duck and pheasant shooting. ANPR “interceptor teams” are being deployed on roads leading to protests to monitor attendance.

• Police surveillance units, known as Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) and Evidence Gatherers, record footage and take photographs of campaigners as they enter and leave openly advertised public meetings. These images are entered on force-wide databases so that police can chronicle the campaigners’ political activities. The information is added to the central NPOIU.

• Surveillance officers are provided with “spotter cards” used to identify the faces of target individuals who police believe are at risk of becoming involved in domestic extremism. Targets include high-profile activists regularly seen taking part in protests. One spotter card, produced by the Met to monitor campaigners against an arms fair, includes a mugshot of the comedian Mark Thomas.

• NPOIU works in tandem with two other little-known Acpo branches, the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (Netcu), which advises thousands of companies on how to manage political campaigns, and the National Domestic Extremism Team, which pools intelligence gathered by investigations into protesters across the country.

And:

Anton Setchell, who is in overall command of Acpo’s domestic extremism remit, said people who find themselves on the databases “should not worry at all”. But he refused to disclose how many names were on the NPOIU’s national database, claiming it was “not easy” to count. He estimated they had files on thousands of people. As well as photographs, he said FIT surveillance officers noted down what he claimed was harmless information about people’s attendance at demonstrations and this information was fed into the national database.

He said he could understand that peaceful activists objected to being monitored at open meetings when they had done nothing wrong. “What I would say where the police are doing that there would need to be the proper justifications,” he said.

Armed police to permanently patrol some London streets

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:27 am on 24 October, 2009.
Categories democracy and the rule of law, British politics.
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Armed officers placed on routine foot patrol for first time - Telegraph:

A hand-picked team from CO19, the Metropolitan Police’s elite firearms unit, will walk the beat in gun crime hotspots where armed gangs have turned entire estates into “no go” zones.

Local politicians and anti-gun campaigners have reacted with anger at the news that the officers will carry Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine guns – capable of firing up to 800 rounds-per-minute – and Glock semi-automatic pistols.

So now, one of the defining features of the British police, that they did not routinely carry guns, is being overturned.

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