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Why I’ve Joined The Open Rights Group

Why I’ve Joined The Open Rights Group

The Open Rights Group

The Open Rights Group are a UK organisation, campaigning for personal freedom and liberty in the digital era. Their current campaigns are mostly focused on the sickening privacy-invasive, Investigatory Powers Act, and the slippery-slope to mass censorship that is Section 3 of the Digital Economy Bill.

In April 2016, back when this site was the Vacant Page, I published a post on the Investigatory Powers Act. Colloquially known as the Snooper’s Charter, I derided it as bollocks. I continue to stand by those comments. Unfortunately, our elected representatives seem not to share the same views. The IPA has been Theresa May’s pet-project since the time of the Coalition. It was blocked then by their Liberal Democrat partners. While the Liberal Democrats continue to campaign against this act, Labour and the SNP have shown no desire to do so. Many Labour MPs voted in favour, and the SNP, largely, abstained.

The European Union Ruled Against the IPA

The EU Courts recently slammed many elements of the Investigatory Powers Act. They ruled that mass, untargeted data retention schemes have no place in a modern democracy. I agree. However, with the EU Referendum producing a Leave vote, and the government intent on delivering the “will of the people”, how long we can rely on the EU to defend our right to privacy is up for debate.

Some argue that our future relationship with the EU will be irreparably damaged were we to implement the IPA. Others, such as The Telegraph, believe that the EU decision against the IPA is evidence of why we should cut all ties with the EU.

Leaving aside the Remain vs Leave debate, the fact is I agree with the EU Courts. Mass data retention and the surveilling of innocent people has no place in a free state. It is the antithesis of freedom. The moment you begin collecting information on all citizens, regardless of suspicion, you force behavioural changes.

Sleepwalking Into a Surveillance Society

Speaking in 2004, Richard Thomas, then Information Commissioner, warned that Britons were on the verge of sleepwalking into a surveillance society. He cited the increased use of CCTV cameras, the rise of tracking software and the use of data-sharing schemes as evidence. It’s hard to argue against him. In 2006, a mere two years after his statement, there was one CCTV camera for every fourteen British citizens. Google, Facebook, Twitter et al regularly track what their users do online in order to deliver targeted content. RIPA, the precursor to the IPA, has led to thousands of British citizens being monitored by their local authorities, according to information given to the Liberal Democrats under the Freedom of Information Act.

Surveillance has become an insidious part of modern life. We’re all being watched by someone. For the most part, watching footage collected by a high-street camera, or learning of our intention to buy a new hard drive isn’t particularly bad. But because of this increasing surveillance presence in our everyday lives, we’ve been conditioned to believe that surveillance isn’t a problem. Or that it’s not even there.

The IPA is a Game Changer

Open Rights Group director, Jim Killock, has described the IPA as the “most extreme surveillance law” passed in a democracy. Police and intelligence agencies have been given unprecedented powers to surveil our private communications and Internet activity. This is regardless of whether we are suspected of a crime. Imagine that every email you send, every phone call you make, every text message you receive and every website you visit is logged. All because it may help to convict you, or someone else, of a crime at a later date.

The vast majority of us are law-abiding citizens. Even those who aren’t are rarely engaged in criminal acts that would warrant such overbearing surveillance. Sedrick selling his uni buddy an eighth of skunk is hardly something that requires the retention of petabytes of data. Of course, the argument is that it’s going to help bring terrorists and paedophiles to justice. Is it, though?

VPNs, TOR and Other Things

In my previous post, I argued that terrorists could simply take their activities offline. They could. While there is certainly radicalisation and planning that goes on over the Internet, a lot of the more serious threats are conducted in person. Even if some remain online, however, they’ll simply switch to using VPNs or lurking on the darknet via TOR. The truly dangerous will find a way around this act. That leaves the mostly law-abiding in the sight of the forty+ government agencies granted access to people’s data.

And when your grand, expensive scheme to catch the dangers isn’t working, you can produce results by expanding what you are looking for. Once implemented, the IPA is only a few amendments away from being a pre-emptive, “Minority Report” style algorithmic search engine. It can start scanning all this data to try and find suspects based on patterns. As my friend Kath Rella pointed out in her post on censorship and surveillance, a criminal psychology student could easily fall foul of contextless machine logic.

Nothing to Hide, Nothing to Fear?

It’s become the mantra of those who believe that mass-surveillance will somehow help. Nothing to hide, nothing to fear. This is false logic when we’re referring to Internet communications. Right now, you likely believe that you’re connected directly to the server this site is hosted on. You’re probably not. You’re likely connected to Cloudflare’s servers, since I use them as a CDN. Additionally, upon visiting this site you’ve also been connected to Google Analytics. If I ran ads on this site, you would have been connected to one or more advertising services providers.

When you visit a major website, such as Facebook, or Twitter, you could be connected to dozens of peripheral content and service providers. You likely won’t know this, unless you’re still using a 56k modem and watch as your browser deals with all the requests. Run the browser extension Disconnect on all your favourite sites, and look at the amount of third-party sites that appear.

It has happened before where third-party service providers have been manipulated to link to unwanted, or illegal content. Sometimes this is quite funny, such as when World of Warcraft’s main site hosted adverts for gold-sellers (a no-no under WoW’s Terms and Conditions). But it has also happened that much more sinister content has been provided to hapless Internet-goers. Some malware exists that keeps its presence hidden, but changes links you send to others. These can be links to illegal content. It’s not your fault but it’ll be on your connection record. Operation Ore showed that simply being associated with illegal content is enough for UK police forces.

Do You Really Want the Nanny State?

Let’s say that you trust Theresa May, the Conservative Party and all those in law enforcement. What about the next government? What about the one after that? The British have a love/hate relationship with the nanny state. At times, we’ve begged the government to protect us from ourselves. Thus we have the Obscene Publications Act, the Video Recordings Act, Section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act (aka Dangerous Pictures Act). The Digital Economy Bill seeks to censor legal content from being viewed by British citizens because the government deems certain sex acts “unconventional”.

To me, these are extreme cases of the nanny state. I’m yet to see hard evidence of real harm from watching Island of Death (other than boredom). Society has not collapsed because a woman sat on some bearded bloke’s face. And the entire concept of “deprave or corrupt” from the OPA makes it sound like it’s designed to protect the weak-minded. You know, those who would watch Human Centipede Part 2 and think having a wank with some sandpaper is a good idea.

No, I’m not in favour of an Internet free-for-all. Certain content should be regulated, and where necessary, blocked. But that content should be material in which there is evidence of real harm to either people in such materials (murder victims, for example), or to a significant enough proportion of viewers. As of yet, the latter has not been proven by the vast majority of materials we try to censor.

Sliding Down the Slippery Slope

Once we’ve censored the unconventional sex acts, and we’ve convinced BDSM enthusiasts there’s something fucking wrong with them, where next? We could censor the violence. There’s no need for people to be able to watch the village massacre in Rambo (2008) on YouTube without the context of the film. Then, perhaps we should censor the implied violence. The human mind is more than capable of conjuring up disturbing imagery far beyond the talents of many special effects artists.

Maybe we should censor words? Some words hurt. I know a certain President-elect of the United States of America gets his panties in a bunch over Saturday Night Live skits. You’d think he would simply stop watching? Of course, that would suggest that people are free to do so and that clearly defeats the purposes of anti-freedom laws.

You may argue it’s absurd that we could get to the point where political satire is outlawed. Yet, as the Open Rights Group likes to say, it is rare that censorship does not simply lead to more censorship.

Every time we say we’re fine with censorship, we’re giving a green light for more censorship.

Joining the Open Rights Group

That is why I’ve joined the Open Rights Group. I am not fine with increasing censorship. I am not fine with mass, untargeted surveillance. There is no crime that will be solved by learning how much time I spend on Facebook. Knowing how many times I log in to Steam each week will not prevent a terror attack. And you won’t bring down the Mafia by knowing how often I check out the perfection that is Clare Richards’ body.

Furthermore, I still believe that mass-surveillance potentially makes everything more dangerous. You will eventually need to outlaw VPNs, TOR and the other methods of bypassing such silly regulations. Might I add, doing such would destroy the digital economy we’re desperate to build in the UK.

I also do not believe that censoring legal material serves any great purpose. It is an infringement on the rights of people to decide for themselves what they want to view. Having a leather-clad dominatrix put a chain around someone’s neck and walk them like a dog isn’t my bag, but it is others and you know something – that’s fucking OK! If we stopped trying to regulate people’s sexual habits based on our entirely arbitrary standards of morality, we might actually come up with competent strategies to defeat the real problems.

As for protecting children – making Sex and Relationship Education compulsory would be a start. You could also educate parents to be better net-aware. Additionally, perhaps you could teach them to not be so squeamish about talking “adult matters” with their own children.

2 Comments

  1. latsot

    Your post makes the case well. The most worrying point to my mind is the temptation of governments – and future governments – to expand the powers they’re given. Let’s not pretend that this isn’t a ratchet: governments are not keen on giving up power, especially when it comes at such little financial cost.

    The business of the porn filter also enrages me. There are lots of reasons to condemn the porn industry. It’s responsible for a whole lot of bad, from exploitation of vulnerable people to the normalisation of attitudes that are not remotely cool. I’d like to see laws that protect people in the porn industry and prevent people being trafficked or otherwise pushed into that industry.

    But the porn filter doesn’t do that at all. It focuses on the people least harmed by the industry (punters), ultimately harming the victims. This is idiotic. And, of course, it makes a handy list of people who want to opt into porn, which is terrifying.

    Reply
    • C. John Archer

      Hi Rob,

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that the possible temptation to expand the powers is terrifying.

      Regarding porn, you’re right. There’s definitely reasons to condemn the industry for its practices. The biggest issue with the filter and blocking idea is that the average teenager, who they’re allegedly trying to protect, is likely tech-savvy enough to bypass the filter. It worries me that they either do not realise this, or that they do realise this and plan to use it as a reason to begin waging war on VPNs and the like. Porn is one of those convenient moral panics to use when trying to increase the stranglehold on the people. Few will step up and defend porn, largely because the industry itself does so little to endear itself to others.

      Reply

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