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Joe Armitage: Serious crime today, your music downloads tomorrow – why the Communications Data Bill remains a bad idea

JAJoe Armitage is Chairman of Medway Conservative Future and Deputy Chairman (Political), Rochester East Conservatives. He’s also on a gap year interning for a Conservative MP. Follow him on Twitter.

The Government’s job is to protect its citizens, but there’s a line – and our liberty does not outweigh the proposed overarching powers the Government (or at least part of it) apparently now wants after the Woolwich killing.

So regularly we are told to forsake a certain degree of our autonomy for protection, but the reasons for state involvement evolve into something entirely different from those originally proposed. Take CCTV: we were told upon its introduction it would be used to catch perpetrators of violent crimes such as murder or rape. Yet its use has evolved massively beyond that and is now used to tackle the innocuous offences of disallowed parking and the discarding of litter in public places. As CCTV is now used to generate revenue, it is no wonder now that the United Kingdom has the highest number of CCTV cameras per capita.

Another example is the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. It was originally intended to stamp out national security threats or prevent disorder that could potentially damage the “public health”. It has now evolved into catching those apparently insidious parents who fabricate their address to ensure they are in the catchment area of a decent school. These pernicious parents wanting the best for their children are damaging the public health, or so we are told. It also transpires “national security” constitutes the monitoring of potential dog fowlers and litter droppers – again, both innocuous and civil crimes being intrusively tackled on the back of a law intended for serious criminality.

We then have the Malicious Communications Act, originally intended in 1988 to cop those causing serious distress to an individual to the degree that they felt their life, or the life of somebody they were close to, was in danger. It is now increasingly being used to punish those who have caused offence to others, such as jocularly purporting to want to blow up an airport for delays, or wearing a t-shirt with profanity written on it. Causing offence is naturally undesirable and some things said by individuals are abhorrent and obscene but to incarcerate those who descent from social normality is nothing but curtailment of free speech.

We now move to the latest apparent preventer of serious crime: the Communications Data Bill. The excuse for this all-encompassing piece of legislation is that it will prevent the grooming of children by paedophiles, and terrorists plotting to destroy our nation online. Sounds like an admirable cause, who wouldn’t want to catch the monsters who killed Drummer Lee? However, the word “paedophile” is not mentioned a single time in the 37,694 word Communications Data Bill and the words “terrorist” or “terrorism” are mentioned a mere 15 times. Yet we are told this Bill is about protecting people’s lives. It sounds to me a lot like the legislation aforementioned, introduced to tackle serious crime only to evolve into something entirely different soon after.

In years to come I would not be remotely surprised if the Communications Data Act is used to stamp out the illegal downloading of music, or the regulation of individuals watching particularly explicit pornography, both acts that are anodyne in comparison to the things the Bill is apparently going to be used to prevent.

It seems the Government, or its advisers have a flagrant disregard for due process and just cause, and desperately seek as much control as feasibly possible. Intelligence services are already able to obtain an individual’s electronic communications on the proviso a judge grants a court order based on reasonable ground of suspicion. Why then must we bow once more to a piece of legislation that is destined to evolve into something wholly different from what it was originally devised for? We really ought to have learnt by now not to trust the state and their intrusive laws, for their proposed use widens rapidly upon assent. The Government ought to be ashamed of itself if it uses the death of Drummer Lee to further its cause.


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