Nick Clegg appeared to announced on his phone-in show yesterday that the much maligned Draft Communications Data Bill ('snooper's charter' to its critics) would not appear in this year's Queen's speech. Opponents of the Bill rejoiced. Julian Huppert MP wrote that 'Nick has killed the snooper's charter'. If correct - and with the greatest respect London's Big Conversation it does seem a slightly weird place to announce this fairly major move, and Mr Clegg did give himself a bit of wiggle room - then the Bill will be shelved.
But the issue the Bill was trying to address won't go away, and we can be sure that fairly soon, perhaps masqerading under another name, it will reappear. Both Committees - there were two, one in secret - that reviewed the Draft Bill accepted that changes in the way we communicate makes it harder for the security services, HMRC and the police to get hold of the information they need to do their work effectively. Both agreed that new powers were needed soon: but didn't think much of the Home Office's proposals.
That being the case, I'm not sure this is the time for congratulatory blogs. Making sure security service and policing powers are up to date and adequate - of course while avoiding unnecessary intrusion, misuse and expense - is something we all have a very big interest in. There is some middle ground, and we need to find it quickly, rather than digging trenches around liberty and security. Calling the Bill a "snooper's charter" that legitimates mass surveillance is an inaccurate charge in my view. But so is saying the Bill's many thoughtful opponents are on the side of criminals.
So Communications Data will be back in one form or another. A delay now is a chance for the Home Office to do what they might have done all along: extensive, careful, and meaningful consultation with all groups involved to seek out some comprimise. This should result in eliminating worrying ambiguities, giving a tighter clarity of purpose and targeted collection, and tougher scrutiny and oversight. Of course, even these changes would do no more than keep everyone mildly displeased. But when it comes to security and Internet freedom, that might be the best we can manage.
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