With the uproar last week over both the detention of David Miranda
under anti-terrorism laws and
the destruction of hard drives
at The Guardian's offices, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has decided to step forward to opine on both topics in the Guardian himself
. As we'd pointed out already, Clegg was very involved
in the decision to force the Guardian to destroy the hard drives, and he defends that position in his writeup:
I believed at the time, and still do, that it was entirely reasonable for the government to seek to get leaked documents back from the Guardian or have them destroyed. Along with the information the newspaper had published, it had information that put national security and lives at risk. It was right for us to want that information destroyed. The Guardian had decided not to publish this information: not a single sentence was censored from the newspaper as a result of the information being destroyed.
This makes almost no sense at all. It is not a reality-based argument, but a fantasy-based one. As already discussed, there are copies of the documents in multiple places. Destroying a computer does nothing at all to protect anyone. Furthermore, there is no evidence at all that the documents in question actually "put national security and lives at risk." But, even if they did, destroying the computers / hard drives does absolutely nothing
to mitigate that risk. It just looks foolish and aggressive.
I don't know about you, but I prefer my politicians to recognize when they do something that has no actual impact, other than to symbolically demonstrate that they don't understand the nature of the digital era. It suggests that they are governing from a position of ignorance, and that's not a good thing.
The claim that "not a single sentence was censored from the newspaper" is also ridiculous. Yes, The Guardian already wasn't going to publish anything potentially damaging, and yes, the reporting is continuing from elsewhere, but having the government come into the offices of a major media property and demand the destruction of hard drives is a form of censorship
. It's intimidation and it creates massive chilling effects for others (which, of course, was part of the point). To argue that it has no effect because the Guardian wasn't going to publish the info anyway is both ridiculous and wrong.
Of course, it's interesting to see that while Clegg is defending the indefensible above, he is not so supportive of the Miranda detention:
I was not consulted on the plans to detain him before it happened, and I acknowledge the many concerns raised about the use of schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 for these purposes. There is obviously a material difference between agreeing by mutual consent that files will be destroyed, and forcibly detaining someone. Terrorism powers should be used proportionately. That is why it is immensely important that the independent reviewer of terrorism powers, David Anderson QC, reports rapidly on whether this was a legitimate use of the Terrorism Act, and whether that legislation should be adjusted. Already, we are planning to limit the schedule 7 powers. We consulted last year on a wide set of improvements – such as reducing the maximum period of detention to six hours and allowing anyone detained for more than 60 minutes access to a lawyer. This autumn we will be taking a bill through parliament to implement these changes. In my view, if Anderson provides a clearly justified recommendation to restrict these powers even further, we should seek to do so in this bill.
Of course, that's a bit of a political punt there. He doesn't come out against it, but certainly suggests he doesn't support the detention. And he does support changes to the law, but only fairly moderate ones at this point. Indeed, Clegg has been -- at times -- good on civil liberties issues, such as (as he reminds us) when he effectively stopped
the UK's Snooper's Charter. But, it seems like he raises a totally false dichotomy in closing out his piece:
Criminals and terrorists now have access to a dizzying array of information, with devastating implications, while the security authorities have new tools with which to track them down. Data-mining techniques have the capacity to make government much more efficient but pose a real risk to personal privacy if taken too far. Social media can create new communities that would never have been possible before, but can also be the source of tragedy, as we have seen in a series of recent young suicides.
So a balance must be struck between a libertarian "anything goes" approach, which sees new technology as a way to escape from the reach of the law, and an authoritarian view that sees technology as a new opportunity to intrude into our lives. Technology will continue to evolve and governments worldwide will try to evolve with it. As long as Liberal Democrats are in government, I will ensure that our individual rights are not cast aside in the name of collective security.
That sounds like the all-too-typical refrain about how there needs to be a "balance" between security and liberty. But that's false. There is little evidence that taking away basic liberties actually improves security (in fact, it can harm it). And the people who are upset about the destruction of hard drives and the detention of Miranda aren't arguing for "anything goes," but rather for a basic respect for civil liberties. That's quite different, and it's unfortunate, if not tragic, that Clegg doesn't seem to understand the difference.