UK government must back off from internet surveillance

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THE UK COALITION GOVERNMENT apparently is in disarray over an ill-conceived Tory proposal for legislation to establish sweeping internet surveillance, and it should simply drop the idea.

News surfaced ten days ago that the government planned to add a chilling proposal to the Queen's speech for a bill to give GCHQ, MI5, police forces and various other authorities unrestricted access to all of the emails, text messages and web browsing logs of everyone in the UK.

The Home Office claimed that the legislation is necessary to "obtain communications data in certain circumstances to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public". The need to 'combat terrorism' is always the excuse for such draconian proposals by grasping bureaucrats eager to be seen as the stalwart defenders of public safety, of course, but the announcement immediately drew howls of protest from Big Brother Watch, the UK Pirate Party and other civil libertarian groups.

Among other things, those opposing the proposition rightly pointed out that when it was in the opposition, the Conservative Party had staunchly opposed similar plans put forward by the previous Labour government.

Just two days later, it became painfully clear that the Tory ministers hadn't thought to consult their Liberal Democrat coalition partners, as Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg sought, without much success, to smooth things over by playing down the government internet snooping proposal.

Though Clegg tried to give the impression that it was only a draft and just an idea, saying, "There's been a lot of scaremongering, a lot of myths about in the media over the last couple of days," the Lib Dem Party leaders later came out as adamantly opposed to the Tories' snooping proposal, raising the spectre of a constitutional crisis if push comes to shove.

The government might step back and consider the British public's incensed reaction to the phone hacking scandal that has engulfed Rupert Murdoch's media empire, in which it was found that his now defunct News of The World tabloid violated the personal privacy of thousands of UK citizens, including a murdered schoolgirl and the families of soldiers killed overseas in addition to politicians and celebrities.

That scandal has led to mass layoffs, the firing and forced resignations of several News International executives, and calls for Murdoch's media properties to be refused relicensing in the UK (which is a very good idea, by the way).

Are Home Secretary Theresa May and Prime Minister David Cameron really so tone deaf as to imagine that the UK electorate won't greatly resent any similarly intrusive surveillance if it is undertaken by their government? Can they actually believe that they won't ignite a firestorm of public protest and be tossed out of office if they ram through such draconian legislation?

They need to overcome their delusions of political competence and realise that, despite their evident lack of ideological integrity, they are temporarily in charge of leading a democracy, not a totalitarian police state. This means the legitimacy of government rests upon the consent of the governed, which they will forfeit if they abuse the privilege. µ

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