Post By RelatedRelated Post
By Sam Earle
Writing in 1928, Andre Breton expressed a fantasy to live in a glass house, ‘where you can always see who comes to call, where everything hanging from the ceiling and on the walls stays where it is as if by magic, where I sleep nights in a glass bed, under glass sheets.’ The idea of total transparency, of a world without privacy, will horrify many. But surely there is worse: to live in a world where some are forced to live in glass houses, while others, their enforcers, are free to continue their business behind closed curtains.
When the British government moves at once to introduce the so-called Snooper’s Charter, which will grant unprecedented access into the lives of its citizens, while also seeking to restrict the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), one of the few mechanisms available to those citizens for holding the government to account, that is the world they are creating.
New technologies have made an open, transparent democracy, in which all information can be readily accessible to all, a real possibility. But this potential is being applied unequally, and in the opposite direction. Whereas the surveillance systems against the public seem to grow in scope and sophistication with every passing law, those in power remain impervious to scrutiny. The government is drawing its own curtains while tearing ours from their rails.
The FOIA was passed in 2000 by Tony Blair’s government. Years later, echoing the sentiment of many other politicians, he called it ‘one of the biggest mistakes of his career’. This wasn’t because of its limited powers (ministers have a veto, for example, which has been used five times), but because, Blair said, it is ‘used as a weapon.’ A weapon against who, we might ask? This was the act which enabled the expenses scandal to be exposed, as well as many other important revelations. It is indeed a weapon, and, blunt as it might be, it is one of the few the public can wield against the state.
After similar denouncements from ministers, particularly following the stubborn release of Prince Charles’ letters, the government have now moved to limit the act, setting up a cross-party review committee. Leaving aside the shamelessly unbalanced make-up of its membership, the two key issues the committee will discuss are, first, whether the act is too expensive and, second, whether it is too intrusive.
Is it too expensive? A study in 2010 by UCL found that the Act costs £31m pounds per year to local governments. In austere times such as these, this may seem difficult to justify; but austerity is a matter of government policy. In any case, this amount is divided between more than 400 councils, who between them share total spending of over £170bn. For central government, meanwhile, it costs only £7.9m, which represents 0.0016% of its yearly expenditure. Not so difficult to justify.
Besides, none of these figures include in their calculation the potential savings achieved by the FOIA. For example, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa), which was set up in response to the expenses scandal, reported in 2013 that they have saved £35m by keeping tighter controls on parliamentary expenses.
But then there is the more interesting question: is it too intrusive? It is said that governments need a ‘safe space’ in which to develop policy. Jack Straw, who passed the Act as Home Secretary and is now against it (and, conveniently, sits on the review committee), has complained that FOIA forces governments to take important decisions by text message rather than in meetings, fearing that the minutes may be made public. He also says politicians worry that their ‘streams of consciousness’ could be released from their private secretaries’ notebooks. Were it not for the irony, some might say hypocrisy, of this government earnestly questioning the need for such “invasiveness”, while also embarking on the most extensive invasion into the private lives of the public this country has ever seen, such concerns could be given some thought. As it is we are only left with the sour taste of double-standards.
Under the Snooper’s charter, the police will have access to all our online streams of consciousness, all our searches and emails, all our calls. Google, Apple and Facebook are required to keep year-long records, and to acquire the right to see them the police needn’t consult an independent watchdog or a member of the judiciary, or pass any effective safety check, they only need permission from a senior police official.
This is a worrying state of affairs. Though we should already know just how public and accessible the Internet is – it is, perhaps, the closest thing we have to Andre Breton’s fantasy of a glass house – it nevertheless manages to foster a strange sense of privacy and intimacy, so that we share online thoughts that previously we might have written in a diary or said to a close friend. But when we combine the extent to which the internet is monitored with the extent to which we use the internet for thinking out loud, an Orwellian thought-police becomes frighteningly close.
Indeed, given what happened to the hapless Paul Chambers in 2011, Frankie Boyle’s recent joke, that we are all one typo away while asking Google how to make a bong from landing in jail, isn’t that farfetched. After his flight was delayed by snowfall, Mr Chambers joked on twitter that he would blow the airport sky high if they didn’t resume flights. The self-described ‘mild-mannered man’ then found himself arrested by police under the Terrorist Act (who provided a printed out copy of his twitter page as evidence) and questioned for almost seven hours by detectives. He was released on bail, only to be suspended from his work pending an internal investigation. He was also banned for life from Doncaster airport. It was only over a year later, on the second appeal, that he was found innocent of any wrongdoing.
In this current climate, and especially in light of the Paris attacks, we are increasingly asked to sacrifice our rights of liberty and privacy for the sake of a vaguely defined security. On the same basis, we are asked to accept the secrecy of government – if the information is accessible to the public, they say, it will be accessible to “the terrorists” as well. But not all the state’s secrets can be hidden beneath the amorphous cloak of security. Wikileaks currently has a $100 000 bounty on the release of a leak of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership documents – this is a matter of economic policy and, by essentially prohibiting anti-corporation legislation, it will have profound effects on how our societies operate. Surely we should not have to bribe our way to such information.
What this says about our society is striking and unsettling; upon turning the handle, we find that the doors to our so-called ‘open’ democracy are firmly locked shut. Maybe this should come as no surprise. Milan Kundera wrote over thirty years ago, long before the advent of these powers of mass surveillance, that as the affairs of a state become ever more opaque, it requires the lives of its citizens to become ever more transparent. And yet why can we not say to the government what they say to us, and adopt that same tone of comforting condescension: you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide.
Then again, maybe we would do better to accept our fate, to grow comfortable beneath the watchful gaze of government and learn to live in our glass houses. We could take on the new revolutionary slogan of our age, to shout from the rooftops, inscribe on our banners and etch in stone above the doors of our proud Parliament: Surveillé, Sécurité, Inégalité!