Wed, Dec 03, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Widening surveillance demands stalwart resistance

It might be imagined that the UK’s ever-increasing spying is going to affect only terrorists, but recent developments demonstrate otherwise

By Nick Cohen  /  The Observer, LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

“It will not be me,” people say.

Of course. Most people are not criminals, after all. The worst many people do online is post stupid comments when they are drunk and masturbate to porn when they think no one is watching. When the UK government said it wants to take away the passports of wannabe jihadis, why should people care? The Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, marks the bloody end of Britain’s version of identity politics. With more British Muslims fighting for the Islamic State than serving in the British armed forces, the least the nation can do is make amends to a bleeding world by stopping Muslim radicals leaving to murder, enslave and rape. In any case, the general public is not going to Syria, is it?

It is also unlikely that the state’s ban on so-called “hate preachers” visiting universities alarms people either. Students and college administrators have barred just about everyone with controversial opinions. The London School of Economics and the University of West London have even harassed and barred secularists who wanted to expose theocrats who were proselytizing against women, Jews and gay people on campuses. Some people told the universities that if they did not defend freedom of speech, the state would remove their freedom. They did not listen and now it has gone. Serves the fools right.

British Home Secretary Theresa May’s order that Internet and mobile communications companies allow police to identify who was using a device and when probably fails to stir others too. Essential clues for 21st-century crime fighters, one could say. Better to help police catch dangerous people than to let them escape justice.

However, what the British Home Office is doing is not as troubling as what it wants to do.

British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has lost count of the number of times he has had to intervene to stop the security establishment crushing basic liberties. The Liberal Democratic Party blocked police and intelligence services from having access to everyone’s Web histories. They stopped law enforcement agencies from inserting “black boxes” to intercept Web traffic.

Most importantly, legislators blocked May’s astonishingly illiberal “extremism prevention orders,” which would have allowed the state to censor opinion — rather than prevent crime — by blocking speakers who are not inciting violence or breaking the law.

Despite these wins , people should feel uneasy. The Liberal Democrats could be gone within six months. The Conservative Party might have a majority, or the Labour Party might, instead. As the record of the previous Labour government suggests that Labour politician and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper would make May look like the leader of the Brownie pack, the odds are that all of the authoritarian measures Clegg and his colleagues blocked will return.

The Home Office never forgets a bad idea; it never gives up. After Clegg blocked the extremism prevention orders, the government’s extremism task force met. Liberal Democratic ministers noticed that officials had put the orders right back on the forthcoming business agenda.

One way or another, it wants police surveillance of everyone’s Web and mobile records and the elimination of unpleasant opinions. If that does not bother people, then people are fools.

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