The UK Government’s Investigatory Powers Bill (IPBill), better known as the Snoopers Charter, has met with opposition in the House of Lords over claims that it could place journalists and their sources in danger, as well as run the risk of undermining the freedom of the press.
The Bill, which has already passed the House of Commons, is currently being scrutinised by Peers in the upper chamber, where it was expected to be attacked from all sides.
This particular issue has been raised by Lord Colville, a crossbench (independent) peer who also works as a producer and director at the BBC. He criticised the Bill for provisions which give law enforcement bodies access to people’s communications data and digital devices and argued that judicial protections should be in place to protect journalists and their sources.
As it stands, the bill states that judicial approval is only required if the communications data will identify a journalistic source, and these request can be made in secret to communications companies.
Lord Colville has proposed an amendment to this which would mean requests for any journalistic materials would require judicial approval, and also that the news agencies would be able to make their case against the claim in court.
He claimed that as it stands, there is nothing to stop the bugging of a journalist’s phone and “It could also include looking at a journalist’s electronic notebook and at footage shot in the course of a story, which, as a broadcast journalist, worries me a lot.”
The amendment, which has the support of all parties as well as organisations such as the Society of Editors, National Association of Journalists, and the Media Lawyers Association, would also require that news organisations are given notice of surveillance warrants unless there are ‘exceptional circumstances’.
The threat posed to journalistic freedoms by the bill in its current form were summarised neatly by the Conservative Peer Lord Black, the executive director of Telegraph Media Group. In supporting Lord Colville’s amendment, he said “The protection of sources is crucial for investigative reporting, whistleblowing and indeed free and unfettered political debate. Without adequate protection, investigative journalism becomes almost impossible”.
He also raised the prospect of the Investigatory Powers Bill going the same way as the previous Labour Government’s disastrous Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) which was passed in 2000.
This piece of legislation was so loosely drafted, and with such insufficient safeguards, that it was possible for dozens of public sector bodies to use it to spy on people, including journalists.
He cited a number of examples including one police force bugging a journalist’s car to listen to her conversations with a source and another accessing the call records of journalists to try and identify the source of a leak from their own force.
One of the Peers at the forefront of the house of Lords efforts to amend the Investigatory Powers Bill and make it fit for purpose is Lord Paddick, a Lib Dem Peer and former deputy assistant commissioner at the Metropolitan Police. He argued that as it stands the bill is a “danger to journalists, particularly camera operators in serious, spontaneous public order situations”.
The Government spokesperson in the Lords, Lord Howe, rejected the amendment claiming that the bill already contained sufficient safeguards for journalists. And although there was no vote at this time, should the Government not address these concerns more decisively, when it reaches report stage (when Peers will scrutinise the Bill in detail, line by line) the amendment is likely to be added.
The Government’s intransigence and unwillingness to listen to reasoned debate on this issue have been a hallmark of their dealings with those campaigning for freedom and civil liberties, including online. As Home Secretary, Theresa May has demonstrated her chronic lack of libertarian credentials.
As the Lib Dem Peer Lord Strasburger said in this debate “they can [now] get their hands on all the information on our phones and computers: our contacts, our diaries, our emails, our web browsing, our social networking and everything we do on the internet.”
Theresa May’s elevation yesterday to Prime Minister sadly means that the issue of internet freedom is likely to get still worse in the UK before it gets better. The provisions of the Investigatory Powers Bill will be watered down a bit by the Lords, but it will still provide the UK’s law enforcement agencies with unprecedented powers to monitor and store our data.
And until the Government understands that online privacy is a right all citizens should enjoy, they are going to have to face up to the issue of more and more people in the UK hiding behind a VPN from the likes of IPVanish and others to keep their data safe from prying government eyes. At present, the Bill makes no reference to VPNs. It will be interesting to see if that remains the case.