Following the release of the Conservative manifesto, and speeches by the Prime Minister, it is clear that freedom is not high on the list of priorities for her Government. The restrictions on technology that the Conservative party have put forward are perhaps some of the most draconian measures ever proposed to counter terrorism. It is time for Liberals of all stripes to stand up and say no more.
The willingness to censor content the Internet is one of the most worrying things in the Conservative manifesto. The manifesto claims that Britain will become a ‘global leader in the regulation of the use of personal data and the Internet.’ Immediately, alarm bells should be ringing that a Government wants to control societies’ use of a form of communication. The manifesto claims that the aim is to make it ‘as unacceptable to bully online, as difficult to groom a young child on the Internet as it is in a community, as hard for children to access violent and degrading pornography online as it is in the high street, and as difficult to commit a crime digitally as it is physically.’ There are two major problems with this. It is either already the same digitally as in real life or it is already impossible to deal with without full scale censorship of Internet traffic such as in China, Malaysia, or Singapore (and even these have workarounds).
The laws surrounding child pornography and abuse, non-violent abuse, fraud, theft, and plenty of others already exist in the physical space and they all relate to the digital space as well. This is why when crime is used as a reason to regulate the Internet there are always shades of an ulterior motive. Furthermore, the Internet is global. It only takes rudimentary skill to download something that will make a browser look as if it is operating from a different region. This means that almost anyone can work around the restrictions that are in place or those proposed. These reforms cannot give us increased security against those who are serious about causing us harm. They can only control ordinary people.
Not only are these reforms unlikely to solve the problems they are intended to, they will also harm our competitiveness within the global market place. Tech companies would rightly be reticent to place offices and servers in a country that is willing to censor Internet traffic or order them to break their encryption – such as Whatsapp in the Investigatory Powers Bill. The Government proposes a levy on Internet companies to ‘support awareness and preventative activity to counter internet harms’ which is basically paid for British propaganda, as unlike gambling, parts of those Internet harms are considered enemies of the state. This will further serve to put off companies from operating in the UK. It is also unclear how a British Government intends to make a company with no physical assets in Britain pay a levy to the British Treasury. It is important to remember that unlike in the physical space, with the Internet, a company can remove itself and still operate in the UK.
In a time of terror it is natural to want to restrict freedom and have more powers. It is, however, against our ideals. We should not allow Governments to propose legislation that will give us no extra security but shrink our freedom and our economy.