The DRIP (data retention and investigatory powers) bill is rushing its way through the UK Parliament. Once it hits the statute books, it will make sure all your service providers store data on all of your communications – the location, time, duration — for 12 months.
The DRIP bill is emergency legislation, brought in as a response to a decision by the European Court of Justice that the European data retention directive of 2009 should be overturned. The directive, which stipulated that communication service providers should keep details on all their subscribers messages for up to 12 months, should be struck down as it threatened Europeans' freedom of expression and privacy, the ECJ said.
Subsequently, the coalition government decided that the opinion of the highest court on the continent wasn't worth much and decided to bring in legislation to give it back the powers that the ECJ said it shouldn't be allowed.
The legislation must be rushed through parliament because if it isn't, the government will lose vital powers to protect UK citizens from terrorists and paedophiles, according to the government. Of course, we all want these threats dealt with, but may fear the impact on our privacy, so let's look at the legislation once again and remind ourselves it is just.
Thanks to cross-party agreement, the bill is heading into law at light speed, happily unopposed and unquestioned by most MPs. How lucky we are that this is the case, for otherwise the legislation could have been delayed, or maybe not made it into the statue books at all. For once, Conservative, Labour, and Lib Dem MPs have buried the political hatchet, and should be praised indeed doing away with that nasty business of questioning each other's decisions. And thank heavens the reading of the bill was scheduled to take place on the same day as a Cabinet reshuffle, so we all had something better to talk about than this terribly boring draft bill.
Don't forget the sunset clause, that's handy — the one that says that DRIP must be reviewed in 2016. You might think that an emergency piece of legislation should have a nice short sunset period, say six months, to make sure any problems that crept in after a one week legislative process are dealt with swiftly. But a 2016 sunset gives us plenty of time to debate the legislation once it's in force — these things shouldn't be rushed, you know, apart from now, when they clearly should.
If you, like the ECJ, have fears DRIP could put your privacy at risk, set your mind at rest. The legislation only allows governments to gather metadata about communications and not their content. The government may know that you called the bankruptcy advice service for an hour outside the local court, then your bank for 20 minutes, your partner for ten minutes, then two minutes, then made five unanswered calls to their phone. But they won't know any of the content of those calls – that's between you and the bankruptcy advice service. Without the content of those messages, your privacy remains unbreached.
And anyway, if government wanted to get the content of those messages, they'd just get GCHQ to do it, wouldn't they? I mean, I know it all came as a bit of a surprise that the surveillance authorities were having a look at our webcams and 'undesirable nudity' therein. But, as many a wise person has said, if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear (it's a wonder we don't all go around stark naked and save GCHQ the trouble). Yes, of course, the GCHQ that looked at the content of our messages is one arm of the same government that's promising not to look at the content of our messages, but what's wrong with having a little faith now and again?
And don't forget we're scaling back who can actually access all this stored data too, which is great. There were 600 organisations who could at first apparently, and I'm sure they all had good reason. We don't know how many of those 600 won't get access to the data any longer, but I'm pretty sure it's not overly important who could then, but now can't, get all the detail of our emails, phone calls, social media messages and so on. David Cameron did say the Royal Mail will be one of those that won't get any comms data any more, which shows you how properly they're thinking about these things — they're not afraid to review their original legislation and make brave changes. Of course, the Royal Mail's been privatised since the original data retention directive was brought in so there's no way the Royal Mail as a private company would ever be allowed access after that, and let's ignore for the moment just why the Royal Mail needed access to all that data in the first place, we should just be grateful that our security is coming first once again.
As we know, the legislation is broad and significant, and the government considers one week enough time for the DRIP bill to be debated before it passes into law. The similarly controversial Communications Data Bill got years of discussion before being abandoned while even the Digital Economy Act, rushed through parliament during the washup before the last election, got months. Luckily, when legislation is as important as this, we don't have to worry about parliamentary due process.
To those who would say that DRIP grants the government new powers, shame on you. It simply maintains the status quo (you know, that status quo that the ECJ said threatened the protection of our data). You might point to DRIP's extension of powers to overseas communications services companies that provide services to UK citizens a new power, but David Cameron says nothing's changed, so that must be ok.
Convinced? No, neither am I. But it seems the vast majority of MPs have been, and didn't feel - in the face of a manufactured emergency - the need to debate what will be one of the crucial concepts of the twenty-first century - the power of the state in relation to our privacy.
The ECJ ruling came three months ago, and three months passed without this legislation being seen in public, let alone debated in parliament. Three months the government had to allow the bill the attention it deserved, and yet did not.
The evil that bad legislation does lives on after its originators have left parliament, their good intentions interred with their government. Our law makers would do well to remember that.