from the oh,-didn't-you-notice-you-had-been-consulted? dept
Last November, the UK government finally passed the Snooper's Charter, officially known as the Investigatory Powers Act. That was largely because everyone in the UK was too busy arguing over the Brexit mess to notice that Theresa May had finally achieved her goal, and pushed through what the Open Rights Group called "the most extreme surveillance law ever passed in a democracy." Now that May has provided the police with the ability to rummage through a year's worth of every Brit's browsing history without a warrant, and given permission for the intelligence agencies to break into any computer and demand backdoors to be installed for any software or online service used in the UK, it seems she has a new target: whistleblowers. The Guardian reports on big changes the authorities want to make to the laws protecting government secrets, doubtless with an eye to dissuading any future Snowden/Guardian-type partnerships in the UK:
The [UK] government's legal advisers have been accused of launching a "full-frontal attack" on whistleblowers over proposals to radically increase prison sentences for revealing state secrets and prosecute journalists.
Draft recommendations from the legal advisers say the maximum prison sentence for leakers should be raised, potentially from two to 14 years, and the definition of espionage should be expanded to include obtaining sensitive information, as well as passing it on.
Although its good news that several old Official Secrets Acts are to be updated for the digital age, a Guardian editorial notes that the new approach would be broader and harsher than existing laws:
Reporters, as well as the whistleblowers whose stories they tell, would be under threat of sentences of up to 14 years, regardless of the public interest and even if there were no likelihood of damage.
Following the firestorm that greeted the announcement of this criminalization of core journalistic activities, and the absence of any public interest defense, May's spokesperson rushed out a comment:
I've seen the way this has been reported and it is fundamentally wrong. It is not, never has been and never will be the policy of the government to restrict the freedom of investigative journalism or public whistleblowing.
However, that response does not deny that journalists would indeed run the risk of 14 years in prison for handling documents leaked by whistleblowers. Instead, it seems, we are supposed to accept that the UK government will do the "right thing" here, and not actually use the new powers against investigative journalism. Leaving aside the fact that just a couple of months ago it passed the Snooper's Charter despite warnings about its excessive measures, there's another very good reason not to trust the UK government here. The Law Commission, the official body which produced the proposals, says on its Web site the following about how it drew up its plans:
In making its proposals the Law Commission met extensively with and sought the views of government departments, lawyers, human rights NGOs and the media.
The Guardian contacted some of those the Law Commission claims to have met, and they spoke of the very limited nature of the discussions:
[The human rights organization] Liberty said that while a meeting was held, it was "not on the understanding that this was a consultation".
Cathy James, the chief executive of Public Concern at Work, was also surprised to see her the whistleblowing charity listed as being involved.
She said: "I didn’t actually know we were listed in the document as we have been working our way through it so it is a big surprise to me. I believe my colleague met with them initially but we were not consulted in the normal sense of the word consultation. That is not what happened."
And the Guardian itself, also allegedly one of those whose views were sought, wrote that it had held only one preliminary meeting with the government's legal advisers, and that it was not consulted before being listed in the report.
Had it been just one organization making these comments, you could put it down to a misunderstanding. But for several people to report independently that they had only the briefest of meetings with the Law Commission, and that they did not regard those in any way as "consultations", suggests a conscious and shabby attempt to sneak out extreme proposals while pretending that they were the result of broad-based and in-depth discussions.
It is hard not to see this as yet another law that the UK government is determined to push through regardless of what anyone thinks, just as it did with the Snooper's Charter. Let's hope that this time the public and politicians aren't too distracted by the Brexit omnishambles to fight and defeat these changes that threaten not just whistleblowers and investigative journalism, but potentially British democracy itself.