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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.
Archive of old news service:
2002 - 2004

1st Jan to 9th Sept 2005

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Momentum is building against the erosion of civil liberties in Britain

There definitely seems to be an increase in activity focused on the erosion of civil liberties in Britain.

Not only do we have the government backing down on trying to make MPs expenses secret after a concerted web campaign against the proposal, the Liberal Democrats launching a commission on privacy and the upcoming Convention on Modern Liberty, but now the Guardian has launched a new Comment is Free site, called Liberty Central, dedicated to discussing the erosion of civil liberties. Georgina Henry explains:

On the plus side, however, there is a growing number of journalists, bloggers, lawyers, MPs and civil liberties and human rights groups who tirelessly track this process, trying to unravel its complexities and stay on top of the relentless march of legislation. Their belief that we are at a particularly dangerous moment in the erosion of our fundamental rights is the driving force behind the Convention of Modern Liberty, called for the end of February (see below for details).

It’s also the reason why today we’re launching a new Comment is free site, liberty central, both to reflect and focus the debate, and as a resource to keep you abreast of legal and political developments.

The site will be the home of Henry Porter’s blog and his columns from the Observer, where for the past three years he has forensically and ferociously tracked the assault on civil liberties, in the process becoming the best informed writer on these issues, as well as a must-read for those interested in the debates. (Reread his first campaigning piece, published three years ago, on the growth of state power in the name of the so-called “war on terror”.)

The site will also contain an A to Z of key legislation of the last decade – ie all published and enacted by the Labour government – which will act as a constant reference point for readers. Read the Guardian’s legal correspondent, Afua Hirsch, on the importance of such a guide and what you can expect to find in it.

We’re also, with many thanks to the civil and human rights organisation Liberty, hosting a weekly clinic, where their specialist lawyers have agreed to answer readers’ queries.

Campaigners win battle to stop MPs from making their expenses secret

Posted by James Hammerton @ 9:32 pm on 21 January, 2009.
Categories political liberties, British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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The British government has cancelled a vote on proposals to make MPs expenses secret.

Blogger’s summit at the Convention on Modern Liberty

Logo for Convention on Modern Liberty

Sunny Hundal, blogging at Liberal Conspiracy, has posted his own take on the Convention on Modern Liberty. In particular he highlights the Blogger’s Summit:

So, what does this mean for you?

openDemocracy have been kind enough to offer a special panel discussion for bloggers, which will be organised by Liberal Conspiracy. I would like to give an activist feel, not just a space for a calm talking-heads discussion with people coming out more frustrated than they went in.

Over the coming weeks, we need to ask:
- how we should look at privacy differently;
- how different powers affect our liberties, uniting football fans, clubbers, Muslims and even technologists.
- what can be done about it.

Ideally, I’d like to see a situation where, by the time we get to the event, we are looking to get organised and move forward, not just reiterate the issues that could have been discussed online anyway.

In my view the Convention has the potential to be a turning point leading to the halting and reversal of the erosion of civil liberties over the past 10 to 15 years in the UK. If people think hard about what needs to come out of the Convention, as Sunny suggests here, it will help to ensure that the Convention will become such a turning point.

[Thanks to Guy Aitchison, for alerting me to Sunny’s article.]

Britain’s proposals to allow sharing of personal data

Posted by James Hammerton @ 6:30 pm on 18 January, 2009.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state, accountability.
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The Coroners and Justice Bill was recently published and contains amendments to the Data Protection Act enabling government ministers to order the sharing of personal data.

To summarise:

  • Ministers at both Westminster and the devolved administrations will be able to issue “information sharing orders”(ISOs) that enable any person to share information that consists of or includes personal data, subject to conditions outlined below.
  • A Minister making an ISO must be satisfied that:
    • the sharing of information enabled by the order is necessary to secure a relevant policy objective.
    • the effect of the provision made by the order is proportionate to that policy objective, and
    • the provision made by the order strike a fair balance between the public interest and the interests of any person affected by it.
  • An ISO must specify the person or class of persons enabled to share information, the purposes for which the information may be shared and the information or class of information that may be shared.
  • An ISO may not enable any sharing of information which (in the absence of any provision made by the order) would be prohibited by Part 1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
  • An ISO may:
    • confer powers on the person in respect of whom it’s made.
    • remove or modify any prohibition or restriction imposed on the sharing of information by that person or on further or onward disclosure of information.
    • confer powers on any person to enable further or onward disclosure of the information
    • prohibit or restrict further or onward disclosure of the information
    • impose conditions on the sharing of information
    • provide for a person to exercise a discretion in dealing with any matter
    • enable information to be shared by or disclosed to the Minister making the order
    • modify any enactment
    • create offences punishable by upto 2 years in prison
  • Ministers are entitled to make ISOs only for purposes relevant to the departments they are in charge of.
  • A Minister proposing to make an ISO must allow a consultation with representations from those likely to be affected by the order, submit a draft of the order to the Information Commissioner and allow 21 days for the Information Commissioner to make a report, before putting the order before Parliament (or in the case of Scottish Ministers the Scottish Parliament).
  • ISOs will be made be statutory instrument requiring approval of both Houses of Parliament (or in the case of orders made by Ministers in the devolved administrations, approval of their respective legislatures).

In short, this will allow government ministers to order the sharing of personal information for any purpose they see fit. Note that the orders can even modify any legislation that might get in the way.

The government will claim that the requirement to consult and get a report from the Information Commissioner will be “safeguards”, but these requirements are fig leaves that will do nothing to stop a government intent on getting its way; a delay of 21 days is not much of a delay.

The government will also tout the requirement for a vote of approval from Parliament as a “safeguard”, but the level of scrutiny an ISO will get is minimal (statutory instruments often get only a 90 minute debate before being voted on) and the government will be in control of the procedures and timetable of Parliament.

Barcode Nation

Barcode Nation seems to be the latest blog dedicated to covering the erosion of liberty in the UK, joining stalwarts such as Spy Blog and UK Liberty.

The Convention on Modern Liberty in Glasgow and Belfast

I blogged earlier about the Convention on Modern Liberty.

The Convention website has since published details about the Glasgow Convention and the Belfast Convention.

Those living elsewhere in Britain can check out the Across the UK page to see what’s happening near them.

If you’re trying to get round China’s internet firewall…

[Hat tip: Samizdata]

…you might want to steer clear of the Global Internet Freedom Consortium.

They apparently provide details of their clients to “vetted” companies to personalised advertising. Should the Chinese authorities manage to set up a front company then it could have calamitous results for said clients.

FoI request guidance demands “real names”

Posted by James Hammerton @ 4:34 pm on .
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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UK Liberty reports that new guidance from the Information Commissioner advises organisations to require that a real name be given when making FoI requests:

The use of the phrase “the name of the applicant” in section 8(1)(b) indicates that the real name of the applicant should be used when requesting information and not any other name, for example, a pseudonym.

MPs to vote to keep their expenses secret

Posted by James Hammerton @ 4:17 pm on .
Categories British politics, accountability, freedom of information.
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From The Times:

Details of MPs’ claims for plasma televisions, furniture and cleaning bills will be kept secret after Harriet Harman bowed to backbenchers’ pressure to stop expenses claims being published.

MPs are preparing to pass a new law next week that will exempt them from parts of the Freedom of Information Act, meaning that they will never again be forced to publish receipts for their claims, in defiance of an order by the High Court. This would make MPs the only public sector employees with special privileges to protect them from disclosing their expenses.

At the same time, the Speaker’s committee revealed that it had watered down tough restrictions on what MPs could claim for. A new regime was promised after Derek Conway, a Conservative Member, was found to be abusing the system. The plans for rigorous external audits, however, have been diluted and a ban on buying furniture and electrical items has been scrapped.

MPs will be allowed to continue using public funds to buy “white goods”, electrical equipment, sofas, chairs, tables, decoration, cleaning, insurance and security. Controversially, MPs will also be able to claim additional sums on their mortgage for “refurbishment”, plus £25 for each night spent away from their main home, without receipts.

A document from the committee led by Michael Martin, the Commons Speaker, said: “It has been argued that it would be excessively burdensome for Members to have provided receipts for all transactions and that additional costs incurred . . . would be likely disproportionate.”

This is taxpayers’ money they’re spending. Apparently they don’t believe we should know how they’re spending it. It is a disgrace.

Why privacy is important

Posted by James Hammerton @ 3:57 pm on .
Categories privacy and surveillance.
Edit This Permalink to this article

For if we are observed in all matters, we are constantly under threat of correction, judgment, criticism, even plagiarism of our own uniqueness. We become children, fettered under watchful eyes, constantly fearful that — either now or in the uncertain future — patterns we leave behind will be brought back to implicate us, by whatever authority has now become focused upon our once-private and innocent acts. We lose our individuality, because everything we do is observable and recordable.

From Bruce Schneier’s The Eternal Value of Privacy.

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