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

Error 451

WordPress censors critical blog post about Armenian Olympic Committee President and rumoured Sochi crime lord Ruben “Robson” Tatulyan following complaint from Russian state media watchdog Roskomnadzor

In October, Russia’s state media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, sent a complaint to WordPress demanding that it censor a critical blog post about Ruben “Robson” Tatulyan, President of the National Olympic Committee of Armenia and rumoured Sochi crime lord.


Roskomnadzor’s October 31, 2016 complaint to WordPress (source)

The offending blog post, which Roskomnadzor claims violates Tatulyan’s privacy “rights and freedoms,” describes an incident at Sochi International Airport earlier this year, when Tatulyan and his entourage – driving vehicles carrying Armenian embassy number plates – brazenly violated numerous traffic regulations.

According to Russian news reports, Tatulyan boasted to security staff about supposedly having acquired ambassadorship in Armenia, before speeding away in the wrong lane through the airport’s car park and ramming an automatic barrier.

A video of the incident, as captured on CCTV:

Tatulyan is not listed as holding office at the Armenian embassy in Russia, although several Russian news reports – including the targeted WordPress post – have alluded to his possible involvement in Russia’s criminal underworld.

One popular online publication, Crime Russia (itself the target of multiple takedown requests from Roskomnadzor), even alleges that Tatulyan is “shadow ruler” of all crime syndicates in Sochi, succeeding the notorious Russian mafia boss Aslan Usoyan aka Grandpa Hassan, who was assassinated in 2013.

Roskomnadzor’s complaint to WordPress does not try to refute these claims, instead citing a dubious Russian law restricting the publication of “personal data” in an effort to censor the offending blog post.


According to the Lumen Database, WordPress has partially enforced Roskomnadzor’s complaint (source)

Via my blog last month, WordPress recently changed its policy about how it responds to takedown requests.

Although the blogging platform has built a strong reputation on its principled support for free speech, it now says it complies with censorship demands in order to ensure access to the bulk of WordPress.com for users within authoritarian countries, who would otherwise face more severe punishment from their Internet Service Provider (ISP).

The change in policy goes back to March of last year, when a ban on a single blog post led Turkish ISPs to censor all of WordPress in Turkey.

Via this March 20, 2015 tweet, WordPress initially seemed intent on fighting the block…


…reaffirming its free speech bonafides via this January 28, 2016 Automattic entry, in which a spokesperson for WordPress stated that, without a U.S. court order, the company “refused to take action in response to the takedown demands from Turkey.”

Under our legal guidelines, we require a U.S. court order before proceeding with the removal of content from WordPress.com. To this point, we have refused to take action in response to the takedown demands from Turkey. After we receive notice of an order, Turkish ISPs, who are bound to obey the court orders, move to block the sites named in an order, making it unavailable to all visitors from Turkey without any further explanation.

However, last month WordPress admitted to having censored a Turkish political blog after receiving a complaint from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Per this undated Automattic entry, WordPress also recently started implementing blocks on request of Russian authorities, with the stated aim of “protecting all of the other 79 million WordPress.com sites.”

Today, when we receive a takedown demand from RSOC [Roskomnadzor], we review it and will often end up suspending the site in question because of a violation of our Terms of Service (for selling drugs or containing pornography, for example). In cases where the site does not violate our terms, we try to take the most limited and transparent actions available: blocking content so that it is unavailable only in Russia, and blocking only the content specified in the takedown demand (rather than the entire site). We take this action with the goal of protecting all of the other 79 million WordPress.com sites.

It’s possible to find out if WordPress has geo-blocked content in Russia by entering certain URLs – such as the one mentioned in the Roskomnadzor complaint – into a Russian proxy.

If WordPress has blocked the URL in question, you’ll see the following message, a nod to Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451:


A list of WordPress blogs currently geo-blocked in Russia is available by clicking here.

See also: “Erdoğan Strikes Again,” my November 27, 2016 item re: WordPress censorship of Turkish political blog following court order by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

And: “WordPress Yields to Putin,” my December 3, 2016 item re: WordPress censorship of “Putin-Hitler” mock photo on request of Russian state media watchdog Roskomnadzor.