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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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Blogging licences!

[Hat tip: Tim Worstall at the Business]

Apparently, a law has been put forward in Italy that would require anyone running a blog or a website to register with the Communications Authority, obtain certificates and pay a tax.

Should this be succesfully introduced there, I wonder how long it will be before someone proposes it for the entire EU?

Mind you, at the “Hat Tip” link above, Tim Worstall suggests the introduction of such a law might just back fire…

If this actually happens I can tell you what will come next though. It’s not all that tough to write a script that will generate a blog for you, nor would it be to get another to fill in the relevant forms. The office doing the registration will be inundated with applications, millions upon millions of them. If this goes through then I think the Italian State is going to find out about Slashdot and what a few tens of thousands of enraged geeks can do to you.

Freedom of speech roundup

Back in catch-up mode, this time a selection of stories regarding freedom of speech:

  • Organise a petition, face a trial!

    Peter Black AM, highlights the case of Swansea businessman Carl Lewis, who organised a petition to oppose a proposed traveller’s site in Swansea during a by-election campaign where he was standing as an independent candidate for Swansea council. The CRE has instructed lawyers to take action against Mr Lewis under Section 31 of the Race Relations Act which apparently makes it unlawful to bring pressure on someone to act in a discriminatory way, an extremely vague law which looks like a “catch-all” clause to me. Peter Black highlights just how disturbing this development is:

    Whatever one’s views on this matter, the prosecution of local residents who are using legitimate and democratic means to bring their concerns to the attention of the local Council, will set a dangerous and unwelcome precedent. If for example the Council were to proceed with an official site and lodged a planning application would the CRE determine that anybody who objected to it, and any Councillor who spoke against it, were acting in breach of the Race Relations Act?

    There are fundamental freedom of speech issues here that are not helped by the CRE’s own inconsistency. They are not for example prosecuting the Labour Party, who put out a leaflet in the by-election calling on people to vote for them so as to get rid of the gypsy site. Nor are they prosecuting the BNP who also put out dubious literature during the recent by-election.

    Note that the right to raise a petition, as well as being an important component of any remotely democratic society, dates back in English and Welsh law (at least) to the 1689 Bill of Rights:

    That it is the right of the subjects to petition the King, and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal.

  • Yes, I know I’ve been very slow on the uptake on the Alisher Usmanov story. For those not in the know, basically, Mr Usmanov didn’t like what some bloggers were writing about him, and instructed his lawyers to get the material removed resulting in a whole swathe of websites, many of which had not published any of the offending material, being shut down. End result, lots of bloggers have taken an interest in the story and rallied round, resulting in the material getting an even wider viewing than it would have done had no one made a fuss. See Chicken Yoghurt and Spy Blog for some summaries, plus check here and here for the offending material itself. Note that Craig Murray (one of the censored bloggers) has material critical of Usmanov in his book without facing any libel charges. Finally Mr. Eugenides sums up the problem succinctly:

    And let’s be clear on this point; these blogs are down not because Usmanov has been libelled, but because he says he’s been libelled, and has a room full of paid monkeys sitting at typewriters firing off theatening letters to that effect.

    I don’t give a shit about this character, or Arsenal FC (no offence to any Gooners out there); nor do I share all or even most of Tim Ireland or Craig Murray’s politics. But that’s far from the point. If you can be silenced for calling a businessman a crook, then you can be silenced for calling a politician a crook, too. Then it’s everyone’s problem.

    Most recently, Indymedia have also been threatened by Usmanov/Schillings and Bloggerheads, one of the affected blogs, is keeping up with the affair here.

  • Shortly after he took over as PM,I covered reports that Gordon Brown might lift the exclusion zone against protesting within 1km of Parliament, after he’d made a speech where he’d talked about safeguarding and enhancing civil liberties. I’m not aware of the exclusion zone having been lifted yet, over 4 months into Gordon Brown’s Prime Ministership. Moreover, the police were recently refusing to allow a march organised by Stop the War to pass within 1 mile of Parliament and even claimed that no marches were allowed whilst Parliament was sitting, but eventually the march went ahead, though this may have been because of the high-profile of one of the marchers. At any rate, it looks like the police were trying to restrict this march but backed down due to the fuss, and there’s still no sign of the exclusion zone being lifted.
  • What did this man do to deserve being tasered?!.
  • Reuters reports that the EU has plans to try and block every website that posts bomb making instructions. In fact it’s worse than it sounds (surely any site on the chemistry of unstable compounds could be deemed to be “bomb-making” instructions?!), from the Reuters report:

    Internet searches for bomb-making instructions should be blocked across the European Union, the bloc’s top security official said on Monday.

    Internet providers should also prevent access to any site giving instructions on how to make a bomb, EU Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini said in an interview.

    “I do intend to carry out a clear exploring exercise with the private sector … on how it is possible to use technology to prevent people from using or searching dangerous words like bomb, kill, genocide or terrorism,” Frattini told Reuters. (emphasis added)

    This is crazy. The man wants to actually stop people using certain words in their articles or in search engines! Note that the Reuters report itself would fall foul of the ambitions attribute to Mr. Frattini here.

    The Register reports a more recent speech by Mr. Frattini that mentions plans to make it an offence to post bomb-making recipes on the internet. This speech makes no mention of the blocking of websites that uses certain words, but we’ll probably have to wait until the formal proposals come forward before we see what is actually in the pipeline.

  • Apparently, writing an email like this, got the American author suspended from his University course and told he would have to undergo a compulsory mental health evaluation if he was to be allowed to return.
  • The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 was brought into force at the beginning of October. This Act made it an offence to incite religious hatred, where to fall foul of the law you’d need to use “threatening” language or behaviour and the prosecution would have to prove intent to foment hatred.

    The problem here is not so much the precise definition of the offence, or even the possibility of someone being jailed when they criticise a religion, but rather it is the likely effect it will have on people prior to the point at which legal proceedings might be instigated, as the Pub Philosopher explains in an article posted after the bill passed:

    People will register that the law has been passed and that there are now penalties for saying nasty things about Islam. Most will not read the small print and will decide that it is simply safer to keep quiet. Managers, unsure of the law, will flinch in the face of demands and accusations from Muslim staff who decide to test the limits of their new legal rights. Expect to see more cases like the ridiculous ban on pig toys in Dudley.

    Even in its modified form, the Religious Hatred Bill will close down debate about religion and will restrict free speech. Last night’s government defeat may have preserved some of our legal freedom to criticise religions but the new law will create an atmosphere in which fewer people are prepared to take the risk.

    For example, could a protest in which placards of the Danish cartoons were being waved be construed as “threatening” behaviour? What if some militant (and thus vocal) Muslims claimed they felt threatened by such a protest, finding it intimidating?

  • Finally, it appears that British diplomats may face a life-time gag preventing them writing articles or letters drawing on the expertise they gather during their careers, even in retirement. As Brian Barder explains in the Telegraph:

    Official secrets are protected by the Official Secrets Act, which rightly binds officials for life, both as government employees and after retirement.
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    The new rules go much further, banning any unauthorised expression of opinion not just by serving officers but also by retired diplomats for the rest of their lives, if such an expression “draws on, or appears to draw on, official information or experience gained in the course of official duties”.

    This applies even if no breach of secrets is involved.

    Had this been in force a few years ago, it could have prevented publication of the ground-breaking letter of 52 former ambassadors and other senior ex-diplomats constructively criticising the Government’s Middle East policies.

    It would prevent ex-diplomats with unrivalled experience “gained in the course of their official duties” from writing articles or letters to the newspapers or giving media interviews on controversial foreign policy issues such as Iraq.

    It would have closed down several stimulating and informative blogs and pre-empted many diplomatic memoirs.

    Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones, formerly a senior diplomat, would presumably have been prevented from serving as the Conservative spokesperson on security in the Lords. (emphasis added)

The Elected Representatives (Prohibition of Deception) Bill

Posted by James Hammerton @ 8:44 pm on 18 October, 2007.
Categories democracy and the rule of law, British politics, accountability.
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A private member’s bill just published makes it an offence for Britain’s elected representatives to make statements they know to be “false, misleading or deceptive in a material particular”. Such a bill might help to restore trust in politics, but as a private member’s bill, it is not likely to get very far.

More details at my personal blog.

Privacy and surveillance roundup

Continuing in catch-up mode, here’s a round-up of recent privacy and surveillance related stories:

  • Back in July, it was reported that the LTI 20.20, the police’s favourite speed gun, can lie. Amongst it’s many feats, were a recording a bicycle 66mph, a parked car doing 22 mph and a brick wall doing 40mph…
  • [Hat Tip: IanPP]Highlighting just how leaky public bodies can be when it comes to personal data, ZDNet reported in September that an inquiry was being held to find out how a hard drive containing NHS patient data ended up being sold on eBay.
  • The UK’s DNA database currently holds the samples of those who have been investigated of crime, whether they’re charged or cleared or not. This has led to some sections of society being disproportionately represented in the DNA database. Lord Justice Sedley thinks this is unfair. His solution? Every UK resident, plus all visitors to the UK, should be required to have their DNA put on the database. Surely the unfairness would be reduced if only those actually convicted of crime had their DNA permanently stored?
  • The Daily Mail reports that, as of 1st October, all phone companies are required to store information about which people you phone, how long for, from which numbers and in the case of mobile phones, from which location for a minimum of a year. Access to this information must be provided to some 795 public bodies ranging from your local council, the tax authorities and government deparments through to the Food Standards Agency, the Immigration Service and the Charities Commission. This is all down to Statutory Instrument 2199, implementing the European Union’s Data Retention directive. Trevor Mendham comments on this proposal at this blog. Note that in 2009 the plan is for information about your internet communications to be subject to a similar regime, i.e. storing who you email, who emails you, which websites you visit, who visits your website, etc.
  • Part III of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIP Act) was finally brought into force, starting on the 1st October, via this Statutory Instrument. The significance of this is that it means that the police can demand that you provide the encryption key to encrypted data found in your possession, under section 51 of the RIP Act. Note that if you ever knew/had the key to the encrypted data you are presumed to still know/have the key subsequently. Bruce Schneier comments on this policy here. The Strange Stuff blog has created an article which, if you read it on your computer, could lead you to falling foul of this law… How are you going to prove you don’t have the key?
  • The Telegraph reports that scientists have developed a method of tracking people on CCTV that can take account changes such as removing jackets or changing appearance:

    The new system plugs the surveillance gap by enabling an operator to choose a suspect and follow him through dense crowds, and any subsequent changes in appearance.

    It works by attaching about 30 “tags” on small clusters of pixels on the footage, fixing them on different parts of the subject. It then “locks on” to these tags, and as the subject is filmed, the computer is able to follow his or her exact progress on the film, as the target moves about.

    The system has been developed by scientists at the defence company BAE Systems, the University of Reading and Sagem, a French telecoms company.

    Andrew Cooke, the project manager, said: “This kind of technology would allow us to track someone like Bourne.”

    Present CCTV surveillance “hits a brick wall” when a suspect mingles in a crowd or even takes off his jacket. The new system will even be able to pass information from one CCTV camera to another and can be programmed to pick out potential criminals by detecting suspicious body language.

  • The Home Office is currently running a trial of a scheme for fingerprinting airline passengers as they enter the UK at Gatwick Airport, ostensibly as a means of preventing illegal immigration. Such a scheme entails recording every air passenger’s visits to the UK, and is thus yet another form of mass surveillance.

Roundup on Britain’s national identity scheme

Apologies for the lack of posts recently. I hope to post more regularly in future. For the moment I’ll be in catch-up mode, rounding up stories in particular areas. Today’s round up is on Britain’s National Identity Scheme:

  • Under a recent statutory instrument, invoking section 38 of the Identity Cards Act 2006, the Identity and Passport Service(IPS) can now employ credit reference agencies, such as Experian, to verify identity information given during passport applications. The IPS will also be in charge of issuing identity cards (eventually all passport applications will involve registering on the NIR). So it looks like credit reference agencies are likely to be employed to verify data for ID card applications as well.
  • The Register reports that from 2008, the General Register Office, currently part of the Office for National Statistics, will be transferred to become part of the Identity and Passport Service. This means that the IPS will beceome responsible for the register of births, deaths and marriages. The Register comments:

    The government has followed up the effective merger of the ONS’ population register with the NIR by subsuming the GRO in the IPS Borg, and the uncontentious register that previously existed will, as of next April, be run by an organisation which proposes to make money out of compiling and continually updating the “biographical footprint” of every live individual in the UK (see here for more detail on the identity verification service and its roots in IPS’ Personal Identification Project, PIP).

  • At their annual conference, the Tory party re-affirmed their commitment to scrap the identity cards. Both David Davis and David Cameron, the Tory leader, included this pledge in their speeches. However they haven’t yet gone as far as the Liberal Democrats in pledging to repeal the Identity Cards Act 2006 and rolling back other surveillance state measures.
  • As of 2nd October, Spy.org.uk had been waiting for over 1,000 days for a disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act relating to government reports on the ID card scheme, despite both the Information Commissioner and the Information Tribunal ruling that the reports should be disclosed. The government is appealing the decision to the High Court. The High Court has set March 4th & 5th 2008 for the hearing.

Life imprisonment in Pakistan for “defiling a copy of the Koran”

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:41 pm on 29 July, 2007.
Categories political liberties, freedom of speech.
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[Hat tip: Pub philosopher]

In Pakistan, Younous Sheikh, the author of a book called “Shaitan Maulvi” (”The Satanic Cleric”), has been sentenced to life imprisonment for “defiling a copy of the Koran”, under Pakistan’s blasphemy law. According to this report in the Gulf Times:

“The court has sent him into jail for life as he described the four Imams as Jews in his book,” public prosecutor Naimat Ali Randhawa said after the court in Karachi sentenced the man on Thursday.
The four Imams were the third generation interpreters of the religion after the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and their views on law are widely respected by Muslims, he said.
The writer also committed blasphemy by saying that stoning to death for adultery was not mentioned in the Qur’an, he added.

2 new sections added to the identity cards briefing document

I’ve added two new sections to my briefing document on the government’s identity scheme, a section describing the obligations individuals will have under the scheme and a section describing the legal powers the government has over individuals under the Identity Cards Act 2006.

I welcome any constructive feedback on the content of these sections, or indeed on the content of the rest of the document.

Glasgow No2ID fundraising gig

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:30 pm on 16 July, 2007.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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Glasgow’s No2ID group, campaigning against the government’s national identity scheme, have organised a fundraising music gig for the 26th July at Barfly, 260 Clyde Street, Glasgow, doors open at 8pm. Tickets are £5 in advance, £6 on the door. You can buy them here.

The gig takes place on both floors at Barfly, downstairs featuring rock/metal and upstairs for acoustic/experimental music.

Bands appearing include: Mama Mayhem, Serpico, Marshan, Stonesthrow, Warped Memories and Traquair.

See also the No2ID music site on myspace.

Gordon Brown and civil liberties — Parliament’s exclusion zone to be lifted?

Posted by James Hammerton @ 11:08 pm on 25 June, 2007.
Categories political liberties, freedom of speech, British politics.
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That’s why I want a new constitutional settlement for Britain. And the principles of my reforms are these: Government giving more power to Parliament; both government and Parliament giving more power to the people; Parliament voting on all the major issues of our time including peace and war; civil liberties safeguarded and enhanced; devolution within a Union of nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – a Union that I believe in and will defend; local government strengthened with new powers – local communities empowered to hold those who make the decisions to account; and with community ownership of assets – greater power for more people to control their lives. (emphasis added)

The passage above is from Gordon Brown’s speech on his taking over as the leader of the Labour Party. The question about his statement about safeguarding civil liberties is whether he means it or not. After all, this government has engaged in the most systematic and sustained assault on civil liberties in modern times (e.g. see here for an albeit incomplete record of the attacks), and Gordon Brown has been in a position where he could have blocked much of it if he really wanted to.

However, if media reports are to be believed, he does seem willing to throw a bone to those concerned about civil liberties. The Sunday Times reports that he may be planning to lift the ban on spontaneous demonstrations within 1km of Parliament Square:

GORDON BROWN is to make a symbolic gesture to critics of the Iraq war by allowing antiwar protesters to demonstrate and march outside parliament.

This will reverse legislation introduced by Tony Blair two years ago to restrict the rights of people to camp on Parliament Square and install banners criticising the government.

This will be a welcome development if Brown is indeed planning this, and I will give Gordon credit for it if so. However when evaluating his claim to wish to safeguard civil liberties, this development would simply be one small step to restoring civil liberties to be balanced against the determined onslaught we’ve seen over the last decade, and various proposals that would continue that onslaught.

It is also worth remembering that this is the same Gordon Brown who said “at no point will our British traditions of supporting and defending civil liberties be put at risk” when describing plans to increase the amount of time terror suspects can be held without charge beyond the current 28 days. The very policy he’s considering would erode civil liberties (as did the increase from 7 to 28 days that we’ve already seen under this government), and the safeguards he talks about would at best simply blunt that erosion a bit.

“Nothing to hide, nothing to fear”, database security and Britain’s national identity scheme

Posted by James Hammerton @ 7:22 pm on 2 June, 2007.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state, US politics.
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A common slogan used by many of those who support measures that put the general population under surveillance, such as CCTV and the British national identity scheme, is “if you’ve got nothing to hide, there’s nothing to fear”. I’ve criticised this slogan before, as have Samizdata (e.g. here, at their sister blog White Rose and here), UKLiberty and the No2ID weblog.

However a particularly compelling illustration of why the slogan “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” is so wrong-headed, and how law abiding people can be put at risk by those who gather information about them is provided by the spate of recent stories involving large (often governmental) organisations losing, or otherwise publicly exposing, personal details of the people who deal with them:

The above are just a handful of recent stories, and I’m aware of other examples going back years. For example numerous cases of organisations losing, public exposing or abusing the personal information they store are also documented in UK Liberty’s article on data abuse.

In each of these cases, the personal details of law abiding citizens, often numbered in thousands or tens of thousands, have been compromised and may have fallen into the hands of those who might try and impersonate them or otherwise use the information against them. So much for “nothing to hide, nothing to fear”.

The British government claims its national identity scheme will help combat identity theft, but it seems to me that it is more likely to enable identity theft because not only will it store all all the information needed for someone to pretend to be you in one place, but its National Identity Registration Number will end up indexing both your national identity register entry and your entries in other databases both private and public. The NIRN and much of your personal information on the NIR will be shared with many public and private sector organisations and be accessible by thousand and thousands of officials.

It beggars belief that lapses in security similar to those reported above would be minimised by such a system or that the opportunities for stealing the information would be minimised either. And, unlike the systems above, your participation (if you’re a permanent resident of Britain) in the scheme will not be voluntary if the government gets its way.

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