Late last week, a group of four peers on Britain's House of Lords attempted to insert the entirety of the “Snoopers' Charter”—the Internet surveillance bill that was savaged by a Parliamentary overview, and abandoned by the UK's current coalition government—into a new counter-terrorism bill.
Under an incredibly tight deadline, thousands of UK citizens coordinated to warn the House of Lords what these amendments represented, and why they should oppose such an underhanded move. Over twenty-eight thousand messages were sent via EFF's action center to the 150 peers who are on Twitter: and that's not counting the emails, letters and phone calls.
The Lords got the message. As Lord Blencathra, one of the Charter's most vocal critics, drily warned the unelected house: “The masses outside ... are concerned about the so-called Snoopers’ Charter coming back.” EFF even received a note from one hereditary peer, telling us ”enough with these emails(!)" even as they agreed that the amendments were “deeply undesirable.”
At least our concerned peer had enough online smarts to email his complaint to our firstname.lastname@example.org address. If only the supporters of the amendments were as savvy. As the Open Rights Group notes, perhaps the most disturbing quotes in the debate came from the amendments' advocate Lord King, who freely confessed his ignorance:
I am not a tweeter. We have Facebook and Twitter. Somebody tried to explain WhatsApp to me; somebody else tried to explain Snapchat. I do not know about them, but it is absolutely clear that the terrorists and jihadists do. The understanding is that part of the reason for ISIL’s amazing advance across Syria and into Iraq was that their communications were so good and the way they kept together was entirely due to one or other of the last two systems that I mentioned, which they handled with great intelligence.
As worrying as such ignorance is, peers and politicians don't need to know everything about the Internet to make the right decisions. They just need to understand that those who do know technology are worried, and that the consequences for imposing the demands of the intelligence agencies on the online world are far worse than politician's special advisors are letting on.
The UK is about to enter a general election, where the members of Parliament who make up the next British government face re-election, and where the tallies of how many seats each party wins in the House of Commons determines who will form the next government. This is the first UK election where the date of the vote has been fixed in advance, rather than decided by the governing party of the day. That, and the unknown popularity of many minority parties, will make for an unpredictable few weeks, where parties will trim and finesse their policies based on the responses of the press and the people.
That a group of rogue lords attempted to slam the Snoopers' Charter prior to the election, even without the approval of the governing party, shows there's uncertainty about whether Internet surveillance is a vote-winner or loser. Most politicians innately believe that combating terrorism, whatever the cost, appeals to the public. But the strong backlash against the Snoopers' Charter, and the growing outcry over the UK's current Prime Minister's apparent intent to outlaw encryption, send another signal: that opposition parties can score points against the present administration by exposing how naive and confused their ideas about Internet privacy are.
The members of the unelected House of Lords can affect pride in their own ignorance, but politicians in an election where their every error will be exposed and magnified, cannot. Right now, some British MPs are walking into a highly competitive election supporting policies about surveillance and the destruction of encryption that they have not personally considered, and may lack public support, especially among vocal and influential voices online.
If you vote in the UK, now is the time to challenge politicians to oppose mass surveillance, support privacy by supporting encryption, and rein back the intelligence services. Ask the tough questions and demand politicians give details about their plans. If we get a real debate, those supporting oppressive and incoherent Internet laws and policies may find winning over the public tougher than they thought.