Britons: You Have 72 Hours to Stop The Snooper's Charter
Update: You did it! After a forceful debate on Monday 26 January, in which many peers protested the introduction of these amendments, Lord Blair withdrew them from consideration.
Directly after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, we cautioned the public and politicians to be "wary of any attempt to rush through new surveillance and law enforcement powers." With depressing predictability, we've already seen that happen across the continent. Nowhere, however, has the attempt to bypass democratic debate been more blatant than in the United Kingdom, where a handful of unelected peers has taken the language of an old and discredited Internet surveillance proposal, and attempted to slam it, at outrageously short notice, into the wording of a near-complete counter-terrorism bill.
The result is that, unless you take action to warn Britain's House of Lords in time for the debate on Monday, there is a good chance that Britain will pass the infamous Snooper's Charter into law with barely any oversight.
On Thursday, Lords Blair, King, West, and Carlile delivered over eighteen pages of amendments to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which is currently being debated in Britain's upper house, the House of Lords. While the House of Lords is unelected, the majority of its members are appointed by past and present British governments: the four peers have all been involved in police, military or intelligence oversight positions.
Their amendments are the core of the previously proposed, and rejected, Communications Data Bill, which would require ISPs to harvest and store data taken from their subscribers' online traffic, and hand this over to the government without a warrant.
The bill, called the Snooper's Charter since the UK's coalition government first proposed it in 2012, has been repeatedly criticized, and was currently sitting in parliamentary limbo after Nick Clegg, the leader of the coalition partners the Liberal Democrats, finally withdrew his party's support for its contents.
The peers' new amendments include some hasty rephrasing to cover some of the most obvious flaws in previous versions of the bill (now only the police and intelligence services have free rein to access your private metadata, as opposed to dozens of government bureaucracies anticipated in the original bill). But Parliament had more worries than just who had access to the data. The previous draft was examined by a joint committee of Lords and Members of Parliament, who unanimously rejected it, saying its cost estimates were "fanciful and misleading," and its privacy protections were "insufficient."
Even legal meaning of the new language is unclear, as the peers have declined to supply any explanatory notes to justify their new wording. But then, perhaps they did not expect to be called upon to explain to any degree of detail, given the tiny window of opportunity they have granted the rest of Parliament to examine the bill. The amendments announced on Thursday will be formally included into the bill on Monday, in a committee meeting that was not planned to include a vote. The Lords will then have two more minor opportunities to debate the content of the bill before it is passed onto the elected House of Commons in its entirety for what is expected to be a simple up/down vote. Britain's members of parliament are currently distracted as they prepare for nationwide elections in May, which means it is highly likely that a major anti-terrorism bill like this will collect enough votes to pass.
Early indications from conversations with our colleagues at the UK's Open Rights Group indicate that there's growing discontent among parliamentarians about how these amendments are being used to bypass parliamentary oversight. However, that's just the peers that have been paying attention. Dozens more would potentially step in to block the bill if they even knew what was happening before Monday.
That's where you come in. If you're a British citizen, you need to tell the members of the House of Lords that their right to analyze and discuss this legislation is being bypassed. We've set up an action alert for UK Internet users, so that you can send messages to the Twitter accounts of UK peers (you would be surprised how many British Lords use Twitter). You can also write to members of the House of Lords through the free service WriteToThem.com, but given the time frame, tweeting or phone calls are much better. Your actions in the next seventy-two hours may make all the difference.