openDemocracyUK

Why bother about digital rights? An absence in the election campaigns

Digital rights are too often reduced to questions of ‘security’. In their election manifestos none of the major British parties appear to have grasped their wider significance.

Amandine Scherrer Jef Huysmans
15 April 2015

Image: Flickr/Oliver Wunder

When economic growth, the future of welfare provisions, concerns about EU membership, and migration take electoral priority, it is understandable that digital rights disappear somewhat from the political scene. But that does not imply that digital liberties should not be a matter of electoral concern. The internet and the digitization of public and private services, economic activity, and democratic protest, among others, are such a major part of many people’s lives that it is worth standing back a little from the electoral hot potatoes to reflect on why digital rights now matter for many of us and not just for the internet geeks, security services, and digital protest movements. The relative absence of digital rights from UK party manifestos and policy statements becomes quite striking in a context where debates on digital liberties, net neutrality and the future of Internet governance flourish across the world.

Digital rights in party manifestos 

When the political parties refer to digital rights, they are narrowly defined and mainly tackled though the prism of data protection and privacy in the broader context of counter-terrorism measures. The Snowden revelations triggered legitimate and timely debates in the UK and across the world, raising a general awareness around surveillance and the use and abuse of online activities. Even if the British parliament’s intelligence and security committee (ISC) cleared intelligence services of breaking existing surveillance rules and invading privacy in its March Report, its conclusions, as well as its independence and effective powers to challenge security agencies, are still heavily debated. The recent attempt to revive the so-called ‘Snooper’s charter (proposed by a cross-party group of peers), and previously defeated in 2012, did spark off further debates, before being defeated once again last February.

The party manifestos, however, remain largely silent about the recent allegations about her Majesty’s intelligence services and their surveillance practices. The Labour manifesto does not mention them at all, and neither does UKIP’s. The Conservatives do take up the issue, in particular the need for new laws expanding police powers in data collection. They announce a Communications Data Act, requiring companies to store certain types of information. More generally, the Conservative party also seeks to put an end to EU interference in the field of Human Rights, announcing the replacement of the Human Rights Act of 1998 by a UK Bill of Rights, that would give UK courts and Parliament the "final say". Such a move would seriously impact the data protection landscape in the UK, and would reverse the progress made at the EU level in that particular field, for example the recent invalidation of the 2006 Data Retention Directive. The ECJ and ECHR decisions have demonstrated a more than passing democratic concern around these issues. They also represent a real capacity of European institutions to engage EU citizens’ claim to protect their digital rights.

The Conservatives’ claims are clearly at odds with the Liberal Democrats. The Snooper’s charter was defeated in 2012 by the Liberal Democrats, and the party announced in its pre-manifesto the introduction of a Digital Bill of Rights to protect people’s privacy and give them more control over their data online. The proposals include a ban on the mass collection of data from British residents by police and security services and ensure the authorities can only access personal data where an individual is suspected of taking part in illegal activity. The Liberal Democrats’ plans would also ensure that powers of surveillance are not extended without Parliamentary approval. 

The Green Party is probably the exception in the political landscape, as its manifesto clearly refers to digital rights that encapsulate not only surveillance, but also access to information and internet freedom. The GP has been quite active in the field of digital liberties in the context of counter-terrorism measures in the European Union. For example, Caroline Lucas and Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb challenged the Government, with a legal case over claims that their communications were being intercepted by GCHQ.

Going beyond security and surveillance

Such a narrow security oriented approach to digital rights is problematic. Framing the question of digital rights in these parameters means that the debate is really about reducing rights. Security policies, in particular in the current climate dominated by counter-terrorism, tend to encroach on democratic rights by foregrounding the primacy of the right to security over any other rights. The digital world is no exception to this.

Too often, people shy away from safeguarding civil liberties in face of the threat of terrorism, and the current hysteria over foreign fighters and potential jihadists being recruited or recruiting online is not helping to tackle the many challenges raised by surveillance on the Internet. The commonly heard ‘nothing to hide argument’ considerably hampers the debate in that field.

One example here suffices to show that this logic is highly questionable. In 2008, Rizwaan Sabir, a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, was arrested and detained for six days as a suspected member of al-Qaida for being in possession of primary research literature. As part of his research on counter-terrorism, Sabir downloaded an Al Qaeda training manual, freely available from US government websites. In 2011, Sabir won the legal battle and was released without charge. Furthermore, it was revealed in 2012 that the West Midlands police fabricated key elements of the case against Sabir. This example not only demonstrates a breach of academic freedom, it also reveals how prejudices towards specific communities (in this case, the Muslim community) are being amplified by online surveillance and the targeting of the ‘usual suspects’.

Besides encroaching on democratic rights, discussing the question of digital rights almost exclusively in relation to security issues, both at a national and personal level, also tends to wipe a set of important issues off the political table: access to the internet, the right to anonymity, and broader questions of social justice and fairness.

Although there was not much chance it would happen during the election campaigns, the political debate on digital rights in the UK needs to be reframed. The digital world is no longer a limited enterprise separated from the ‘real’ world. It has become part of so many areas of life that digital activities and technologies cannot be limited to issues of security. It should not come as a surprise that decisions about the governance of digital worlds impact significantly on people’s lives, locally, nationally and globally.

Although securing the financial basis for the NHS is the major issue, the health care system also raises many questions about digital access, commercialisation, and cost. The high cost and many controversies about the creation of a national computer network in the NHS is one example, controversies about selling data from patients to private companies another. The implications about fair and equal access to local surgeries in areas where appointments with GPs have started (partly) moving in the direction of on-line bookings is yet another.

Schools, and education more generally, are both increasingly dependent on digital technology and platforms. Digitization creates fantastic learning opportunities, granting almost instant access to an unimaginable repository of knowledge. Schools also support the making of increasingly digital literate citizens. Yet, they also face questions of online bullying, the protection of personal data, and traceability (all the ‘silly’ things one once did when on-line potentially impacting on job opportunities, insurance eligibility and fees, and so on).

Digital activities have become a serious issue in mobilising political dissent and protest, as well as in governing its legitimacy. Flash mobs, protest campaigns, free encryption programmes, hacktivism, among others, are making politics digital. The democratic legitimacy of many of these activities is a matter of debate, and occasionally of quite intense debate. China, Russia and the Arab states are often referred to particularly when they seek to control digital technology and transactions for the purpose of curtailing political dissent.

Yet, online censorship, serious limitations to freedom of expression online and unfair access to the Internet do not stop at the UK’s doorstep because it has a democratic political system. In a report released in 2013, Index on Censorship explored nations’ records on free expression and found that despite upholding online freedom in comparison with other comparable democracies, the UK showed worrying trends on the criminalisation of social media, mass surveillance and proposals to introduce web filters. The increasing governmental interest in limiting the online expression and association raises serious questions about how to retain the democratic political opportunities that digital worlds offer.

There is thus much more to the internet and the digitization of people’s lives than terrorism and crime, and it is timely that digital rights are recognised as a political stake; as something that matters for a society and its political, economic and cultural future. Taken more broadly, the issue of digital rights should be tackled in a much more proactive manner.

Go international

Access to the internet is a key emerging area of human rights worldwide. A 2011 Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression underscored the unique and transformative nature of the Internet. The use of the Internet was considered important not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also in relation to exercising a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole.  The report not only addressed access to content and its limitations through the censorship of information online and the criminalization of legitimate expression, but also the right to enjoy physical and technical infrastructure required to access the Internet in the first place. Access to internet as a means for democratic emancipation has become a salient issues in contemporary debates, as well as a renewed ideological flag for activists and NGOs worldwide.

This aspect is surprisingly absent from political debates in the UK, where the digital divide is still to be found. Recently, the decision to digitalised UK government services shed a cruel light on the digitally ‘excluded’. According to the Office for National Statistics released in 2013, 17% of households in the UK do not have internet access. The Digital Inclusion Charter launched in 2014 reminds us that, in an era in which many governmental and commercial services are becoming "digital by default", some are left behind.

The challenges that regulations over online, and more generally, digital activities and access to the internet open up are numerous, and concepts of digital rights need to be refined and clarified. Nonetheless, given that the digital is precisely everywhere and concerns us all, those challenges should not be absent from the arena of domestic politics.

At European and International levels, these issues are intensely discussed, raising debates and controversies that often mobilise transnational networks of activists. Politics in that field is relentless, ranging from debates around a European digital habeas corpus to the Net Mundial Initiative, opening up tricky but critical debates about net neutrality and digital freedoms. The recent US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Open Internet rules adopted in February, for example, has been perceived as a victory for the defenders of Net Neutrality. 

The lack of discussions in the context of the UK general elections in this field that matters for all can be seen as a missed opportunity to increase citizens’ awareness around these issues and to launch a national debate that has real implication for UK citizens.

PN

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