For a while I’ve been using a website called 38Degrees. It’s a very useful “campaigning” website that helps people organise around political issues. I’ve used it to send petitions or heighten awareness of certain issues on Twitter and the like, but the other day I responded to a call from a man called Keith to go and meet the Liberal Democrat MP for Leeds West, Greg Mulholland, to discuss the draft Communications Data bill which is currently being argued over in Westminster. Basically, the draft bill allows the security services and other public bodies to have access to all our digital communications for a much longer period than they do already. I am not against this per se — if some fanatic is planning to blow up Leeds Station then I very well want the police to have the means to stop them — but the idea being put forward with this new bill is that the security services will have access to our electronic communications *without* having to go to a judge first.
This seems to me to be regressive step. Our democracy isn’t perfect but it works because different public institutions are independent to one and another and accountable to each other. Allowing the security services to tap into everything and anything without having to present evidence to a judge sets a dangerous precedent. Not least because it could allow spying to be more easily politicised that it is already. Don’t believe me? Then just think about the recent stories about undercover coppers spying on protesters at the Glastonbury Festival. If they can do it in the physical world, what’s to stop them doing in it in the virtual?
Anyway, so I set off around lunchtime walking though the university, past happy families celebrating graduation and then across Woodhouse Moor and then down the hill toward Burley Park, where Mr Mulholland holds a monthly surgery. Incidentally, what a contrast that walk is. At the top of the hill Leeds seems so leafy and well-to-do, all those grand Georgian and Victorian houses, but as you cross the park and drop down the hill it immediately turns into a much poorer quarter of back-to-back red brick terraces, each one of them seemed to have paint peeling from the walls like dry scabs.
Keith was waiting at the bottom of the hill with a small group of others. We said hello and then strolled to the surgery. When we go there Mulholland was right enough, although the meeting was awkward. None of us were experts. But we handed him a petition signed (electronically) by over 4000 people in Leeds. He sympathised with our position and pointed out that he had signed a letter in The Guardian stating that the state be not allowed to snoop on its citizens at will, but he didn’t go as far to say that he would vote against the bill once it was presented to parliament. The meeting was interesting, not least because the dozen of us who taken part had never met before and had just come together spontaneously to help form public opinion. In college I often discuss with my students the theory that an unholy trinity of corporate media ownership, advertising and public relations firms has emasculated the public sphere. But there we were, apart from all three. A group of strangers having a serious discussion about the rights and wrongs of government policy who had organised by making good use of new technology. Not bad use of it, as the draft bill seems to suppose.