Illustration: Electronic Frontier Foundation/Hugh D’Andrade
Last week, the UK government pushed forward its Investigatory Powers Bill (or Snoopers’ Charter) through Parliament, which vastly increased their surveillance capabilities and powers to penetrate the electronic communications of ordinary citizens. This extremely authoritarian piece of legislation moved forward with disturbing ease in the House of Commons, gathering 281 votes in favour with only 15 against. There has been extraordinarily little public protest over this, either.
The freedoms which we value so highly in Britain are gradually slipping from our fingers. Under the Snoopers’ Charter, the government will now store the records of websites visited by everyone in the UK for 12 months incase the police or the intelligence services want to have a look at what we’ve been doing, phones and computers can now legally be bugged and companies must assist the government in peeling back layers of encryption from communications if they are ordered to do so. The government can now also legally monitor journalists and their sources, raising serious concerns about what consequences this will have for freedom of the press in Britain, which is already under severe attack.
The Tory government has taken frightening steps in recent months to destroy civil liberties and basic freedoms in Britain, from outlawing speech that it deems ‘extremist’ in nature and keeping Julian Assange arbitrarily detained in the Ecuadorian Embassy to effectively legitimising the extrajudicial assassination of British citizens. The introduction of the Snoopers’ Charter is simply the latest in a long line of steps towards corroding our freedoms and increasing state control over the lives of ordinary citizens under the pretext of fighting terror. And for those who believe that these tyrannical measures are only aimed at ‘extremists’, then take a look at how David Cameron outlined his government’s approach towards fighting ‘extremism’:
“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It’s often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that’s helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance. This government will conclusively turn the page on this failed approach”.
Meaning: the government will no longer leave you alone if you simply ‘obey the law’. Obeying the law is no longer enough if you don’t want to be targeted by the government. The era of ‘passive tolerance’ is gone. Now, citizens must actively subordinate themselves to the interests of the State and not only must they stay within the bounds of the law; now, they must make active efforts to stay within bounds within the law that only the government has the power to define. Meaning one mustn’t express the wrong opinion, as even though it is legal for them to do so, this is no longer enough to protect them from being targeted by the law, subjected to surveillance or even imprisoned by the State. And all of this is necessary in order to defend British Values – such as democracy, the Rule of Law, and tolerance. Yes, it is necessary to abolish freedom of speech, in order to maintain respect for tolerance. And as for the Rule of Law, that never really existed. Because if it did exist, then David Cameron and the other members of the government involved in the destruction of Yemen would be in prison for war crimes. If the Rule of Law did exist, then half the government would be facing legal action for engaging in acts of ‘extremism’ as they themselves define it. The law has never applied to those at the top. The law is a weapon used by the State to subjugate and repress ordinary citizens who don’t possess the power or the privilege to defend themselves.
This is not a war against terror; it is a war against dissent. Of course there are people out there who do wish to do us genuine harm, but the way to combat those people is not by destroying our own freedoms so they don’t have to. If British Values really do exist, and are not just propaganda churned out by the authoritarian extremists who wield unlimited power in this country, then surely we should be reasserting and strengthening those values, not just here at home but overseas as well, so that the people of the world will see that we are serious when we say we want to fight terror and defend democracy? Surely it is insanity to become the very people we are claiming to oppose? Once again, it is up to ordinary citizens to fight back. We must put pressure on the government to take steps towards curbing mass surveillance, rather than expanding it. We must make our voices heard. Before it is too late.