Under Surveillance

‘The whole process is a farce’ – Read the outraged responses to the UK Parliament’s refusal to reopen debate of highly controversial new surveillance law

Last November, the UK Parliament approved the Investigatory Powers Act – dubbed the “Snooper’s Charter” by critics – a highly controversial surveillance law handing British authorities sweeping powers to hack into the phones and computers of private citizens.

Shortly after being passed into law, someone named Tom Skillinger started a petition for Parliament to repeal the new law, calling it a “disgrace to both privacy and freedom” – a sentiment echoed by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden and others.


Skillinger’s November 2016 petition to Parliament (source)

According to petition.parliament.uk, Parliament’s Petitions Committee will only consider holding a debate if a petition reaches 100,000 signatures, a number quickly surpassed by Skillinger’s petition in late November.

However, the Committee decided not to debate because the bill was “debated on many occasions in Parliament before it became law.”


The Petitions Committee’s response to the petition

Via my December 21, 2016 public records request to the House of Commons, here’s how members of the public¹ who signed the petition responded to the Committee’s decision:

John Barron
The website states “if a petition gets 100,000 signatures, it will be considered for debate in parliament”. Why then are we being told that the Petitions Committee is overruling this in the case of the Investigatory Powers Act petition?

Yes it has been discussed before but the public is still not happy with the outcome and with over 150,000 signatures, it seems the discussions that have taken place previously have not fully captured the views and expected outcomes of a significant number of people.

Where on your website are the rules about refusing to consider petitions with over 100,000 signatures for discussion in Parliament?² This should be made very clear below your statement about petitions receiving 100,000 signatures being considered for debate on your home page.

And secondly, why are the public’s views on this matter not being shared with Parliament? Something of this magnitude with so much potential for internal and external misuse should be very carefully considered and reviewed for as long as it takes to get it right. And the people whose data is expected to be used should be listened to throughout the whole process.

People should consent to their data being used in this way, this is basic ethical governance. Why is it that we have rigid ethics committees for all other professions but not for politics which impacts not just on a sample of people but on the entire population?

Harold Spritzer
It was my understanding that the government *had* to discuss any petition with over 100,000 responses. Therefore, what is the purpose of the Petitions Committee, when popular petitions, that the government would rather brush under the carpet, are so easily ignored? What is the purpose of democracy when it can be this easily ignored? I ask you to reconsider this decision, and will be bringing this up directly with my MP.

[The same person responding to the Committee’s response that its decision was based on the fact that “the issues had recently been debated.”]

The IPA may have been “recently” debated, however, its worth nothing;

• A previous version of this bill, the “Draft Communications Data Bill,” was previously thrown out. The implication of this bill is very much – if not exactly the same.

• As usual with most technology focused laws and legislation, those that voted on the bill know and understand very little about the law, and have in fact – just chosen to exclude themselves from the law!

Just because a bill has been discussed “recently” does not make grounds to ignore public viewpoint. This law and decision just goes to prove that separate and divide between Parliament and the public is ever growing, treating themselves as “above the law” by excluding themselves from the law, and is simply an attempt to legalise existing illegal behaviour by the government.

Cat Mendoza
So you have decided not to debate the new Snooper’s Charter law. So really the process is a waste of time if you’ve already “debated” a topic, whether we sign the petition afterwards or not? Makes the whole process a farce and you should have this clearly stated at the top of each petition. Maybe something along the lines of “Please do not waste our time with this petition if we have already debated the issue, thanks”.

When matters like this are concerned, the number of times a certain matter is debated is irrelevant. What is important is that over 100,000 people are still not happy about the circumstances to whatever matter is being petitioned. Therefore there is still substantial concern which is not being addressed.

My personal opinion is that if you are adamant that you will not discuss matters that have already been discussed, and therefore it is irrelevant whether people are happy about it or not, that you shouldn’t waste our time with websites that kid that we have a voice and opinion, because “if we already debated it, then we won’t debate it again”. It sickens me.

You may as well shut this website down, as all it really is in practice is a forum for you to track how many people don’t like something as opposed to being a platform to change anything that’s important.

Responses have been lightly edited for continuity purposes.

¹Names have been changed.
²More info about the petitions process available via: https://petition.parliament.uk/help

The Case for Regulation

Members of UK official press regulator IMPRESS answer criticism that state-backed regulation could undermine a “vibrant local press”

Last week, I blogged about IMPRESS, which recently gained recognition as the first official press regulatory body in the UK.

The decision was made by the Press Recognition Panel (PRP), the government-funded body set up in the wake of the 2012 Leveson Report to oversee press regulation.

Under Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which has been passed by Parliament but is awaiting a final signature from Culture Secretary Karen Bradley, publishers who are not a member of an approved regulator could face “exemplary” damages – for instance, having to pay their opponent’s costs in libel and privacy cases.

Critics argue that Section 40 could undermine a “vibrant local press” by “blackmailing” publishers into joining, otherwise face “draconian” sanctions.

I asked members of IMPRESS about the above criticisms. Here are their responses.

Stephen Rodgers – author at The Week in
I think the only people who would talk about ‘state backed press regulation undermining vibrant, local press’ are members of a cosy club who resisted Leveson, rejected its findings and continue to regulate themselves while using the word ‘independent.’

I went through the membership process for IMPRESS and found nothing to concern me or make me think I would have to change the way I operate. In fact, I think it actually offers more protection for small organisations like mine.

I can fully understand why the nationals are throwing their toys out of the pram. Nobody has ever dared to stand up to them in the past and I really hope the government does proceed with Section 40. Given that most governments still run scared of the press, somehow I don’t imagine it is going to happen though.

Martin Childs – Business Partner, Shropshire Live
We acknowledge that for their own reasons mainstream publishers may be critical of IMPRESS, but as a small independent publisher here is our reason for joining.

Being a trusted news source for our community was our top priority and it is important for us to be regulated in some way and have some support.

We were not forced to join, neither is any publication under the current rules, but we saw the benefit it could bring to a publication like ours and importantly it was a good sign for our readers to know that we can be a trusted source of local news.

It is open to any UK regulator organisation to be apply to be recognised under the Royal Charter and IMPRESS is the first to do that, so we were proud to be a member.

The Leveson inquiry was a long and detailed investigation and concluded on the ways the UK Press could be improved, making several recommendations that we think should be followed. We believe we have high ethical editorial content and recognise the importance of following certain standards as publishing content in press or online has great responsibility.

By joining IMPRESS it gives us the confidence to pursue stories knowing we have the help and backing of an independent regulator who can offer an arbitration scheme should any breach occur.

By having local press regulated it produces a higher level of quality news and journalism which can only be a good thing for all!

Spokesperson for The Ferret
The Ferret signed up because we think the media needs independent regulation to ensure public trust and we took into account the views of the National Union of Journalists who also backed Impress.

We lack the financial resources of many media so adopting Impress as our regulator offers us low-cost arbitration and potential legal protection, which is vital for our sustainability. We are committed to conducting investigations in the public interest and to publishing journalism of a high standard that is both accurate and fair. If we do receive any complaints in the future then Impress should help us to resolve them fairly and cost effectively.

Daniel Ionescu – Managing Editor, The Lincolnite
Stonebow Media are proud to be one of the founding members of IMPRESS with our three market leading publications in Lincolnshire – The Lincolnite, Lincolnshire Reporter and Lincolnshire Business. We reach more than half a million people every month, more than any traditional publisher in our patch.

Critics of IMPRESS appear to be intentionally misleading. Indeed, with Section 40, publishers not part of an approved regulator would have to pay all the costs, even if they win the case. With IMPRESS, that would not be the case.

In particular that is because before any case would go to court, it would have to go through a mediation process via IMPRESS. This mediation process is capped at £3,500, which is considerably lower than solicitors’ cost, and within the financial means of most local publishers (most of which are part of national chains).

As is the case now, anyone attempting to sue a publication without attempting mediation, risks having their case thrown out. With Section 40 and under IMPRESS, it would be even more likely to stop at the mediation process. Even IPSO has a similar process in place.

Also, let’s not forget the Leveson inquiry was about national publications misbehaving on an industrial scale over a long period of time. Local/regional publications have not been singled out, but as a matter of fact, actually praised for their practices.

If any local publishers are concerned about the implementation of Section 40, they should join IMPRESS and benefit from full protection and independent mediation, should that be required.

James Cracknell – Editor, Waltham Forest Echo
Trust in British journalism has collapsed after of a series of high-profile scandals (phone-hacking, Hillsborough etc) and an astonishing dedication to masking the truth that is still displayed on a daily basis by several major publications (The Sun, Daily Express etc).
The need to establish a new press regulator is the direct result of this collapse in trust.

The need to make that regulator become “state backed” as you call it is also the direct result of this collapse in trust. In an ideal world, a “state backed” regulator would not be necessary, but the failings of the PCC and now IPSO, which remains just another stooge of the major publishers, means that an alternative such as IMPRESS is needed.

How else can trust be restored? Even in the EU referendum this year, it became clear that the media was failing the public by publishing lies on their front pages. Your question regarding Section 40 should not be levelled against IMPRESS; they did not write that law. As the editor of a local paper that is a member of IMPRESS I feel reassured, not undermined.

Steve McNought – Director, Arkbound
The background to IMPRESS should be considered [in context]: how the UK media [had] no Leveson-compliant regulator; how the UK has one of the most concentrated media in the world, with little diversity and ownership by three main companies; the history of inaccuracies and even illegal activity by some mainstream press; poor enforcement of the Editors Code of Conduct by IPSO; insipid and ongoing connections with mass media owners and the Government; misrepresentation of disadvantaged groups and current issues; blatant party-political propaganda by some publications (not marked as opinion)….. and so on.

By developing a consistent, Leveson-compliant framework, IMPRESS has the capacity to infuse greater public confidence, proper accountability and diversity in the media – tackling the above problems. I’m not saying IMPRESS is flawless – I’ve raised concerns and criticisms with them myself – but I believe they are a much needed step forward.

It seems to me that references to ‘blackmailing’ and ‘draconian sanctions’ are misplaced and inaccurate. One could frame the ‘regulation’ of IPSO and the [non]enforcement of the Editors Code of Conduct – to the great detriment of individuals, disadvantaged groups and society as a whole – in a far worse light.

…I believe there is a strong case for a properly regulated media, in line with the Leveson Report and recommendations thereof. Most democratic nations have some form of enforceable code of conduct for the press, which helps uphold accuracy and deters the inappropriate promotion of powerful private interests (as has become the modus operandi of the UK’s media). It is not a question of organisations being forced to comply, but of them not breaking a code of conduct that exists to protect (not undermine) media freedom and its public interest connotations.

It is about re-asserting good journalism values  – taking media back as a tool for information, education and enlightenment. Those principles originate from the Renaissance Printing Press that resulted in a new age of progress, something that (arguably) has never been emulated since. Like all tools, without some kind of oversight or regulatory framework, such a mechanism of good can be used for less laudable purposes. To any informed and impartial mind, a glance through the UK’s tabloids (and many of the purportedly better publications) is proof of that. I could quote a few examples but this email would soon end up becoming the length of a book.