Communications Bill is overkill says parliamentary committee

In a last ditch effort to get public opinion behind her Communications Bill, Home Secretary Theresa May gave a sensationalist interview to the Sun Newspaper last week. Headlined Track crime on net or we’ll see more people die, the Sun quoted May as saying, “The people who say they’re against this bill need to look victims of serious crime, terrorism and child sex offences in the eye and tell them why they’re not prepared to give the police the powers they need to protect the public. Anybody who is against this bill is putting politics before people’s lives.”

But the people largely rejected her arguments. Next day Big Brother Watch ran an analysis of readers’ comments: “At the time of writing there are 94 comments on the Sun article and here’s what readers think: Positive / support the Bill: 6 comments; Negative / against the Bill: 71 comments; Off topic / unclear: 17 comments.” Today, the parliamentary Joint Committee on the Draft Communications Data Bill, charged with examining and recommending on the bill, has also largely rejected the proposed bill.

“Our overall conclusion is that there is a case for legislation...” it says, “but that the current draft Bill is too sweeping, and goes further than it need or should. We believe that, with the benefit of fuller consultation with CSPs than has so far taken place, the Government will be able to devise a more proportionate measure than the present draft Bill, which would achieve most of what they really need, would encroach less upon privacy, would be more acceptable to the CSPs, and would cost the taxpayer less.”

Overall, the report criticizes misleading or unsubstantiated arguments and a lack of genuine consultation. “The breadth of the draft Bill as it stands,” commented Lord Blencathra, Chair of the Joint Committee, “appears to be overkill and is much wider than the specific needs identified by the law enforcement agencies.” Civil liberties activist Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch commented, “The committee has exposed weak evidence, misleading statements and fanciful figures and unanimously rejected this draft Bill’s proposal to monitor everyone’s emails, web visits and social media messages.”

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg agrees. The report, he said, “makes a number of serious criticisms – not least on scope; proportionality; cost; balances; and the need for much wider consultation. It is for those reasons that I believe the Coalition Government needs to have a fundamental rethink about this legislation. We cannot proceed with this bill and we have to go back to the drawing board.”

The Joint Committee’s recommendations include ‘proper consultation... before any revised proposals are bought forward’; greater restrictions on who can access communications data; authorization to access data should be strengthened and ‘enshrined in primary legislation’; a greater role for the Interception of Communications Commissioner; and that ‘willful or reckless misuse of communications data’ should be an offense ‘punishable, where appropriate, by a prison term.’

“The committee is clear,” says Big Brother Watch; “the draft Bill must not become a bill, and tinkering around the edges is not good enough. It’s back to the drawing board for the Home Office.”

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