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Last call for UK liberties

Convention rallies support against government madness

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On Saturday 28 February, several hundred activists and interested citizens got together to issue a rallying cry to all concerned by the government’s ever increasing encroachment on our traditional civil liberties. Or, if you prefer the Labour Party version: a bunch of mostly white, middle-class, middle-aged do-gooders demonstrated just how out of touch they are with the true needs of the people of Britain today.

This was the Convention on Modern Liberty. It was launched with a joint statement by Anthony Barnett (openDemocracy), Phil Booth (NO2ID), Shami Chakrabarti (Liberty), Henry Porter (The Observer) and Stuart Weir (Democratic Audit) saying: "We are entering a dangerous period in our country. Economic turmoil threatens profound hardship and disharmony. Disenchantment with politics is growing and even legitimate protest is threatened by an unprecedented programme of challenges to our rights, freedoms and democracy."

"Such threats can be overcome," it continued, "but only if the public is woken to the dangers."

Hence the Convention - a day given over to speeches, presentation and discussion about the most pressing threats to our liberty. The main event took place in London, and consisted of speeches from the great and the good, panel sessions and debate on topics as diverse as Press Freedom, the Police and the role of the Judiciary. The whole was topped and tailed by keynote speeches from Shami Chakrabarti, Philip Pullman and David Davis, MP. (For those interested, most of the major sessions are now available on the Convention website.)

This model was echoed in parallel conventions hosted by No2ID in Belfast, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Glasgow and Manchester. Live video streaming from London meant that those attending the satellite events could catch the major speeches, before pottering off into their own debates.

El Reg went to Cambridge where the most tech-oriented debates were taking place. The morning’s four panel sessions took in:

- "Transformational Government" - engaging with government in the digital age

- Privacy and digital communication, focussing on RIPA and Phorm

- Internet Censorship in the UK: Why, how, and by whom?

- The database state – a review of government proposals for centralising data

Our regular readers will find the issues raised familiar, with little new appearing during the day: not criticism, but an acknowledgment of just how much meat there is in each and every one of the topics.

The Transformational Government session quickly decided that no one quite knew what the term meant, and fell back on a critique of the way in which government – particularly local government – attempts to engage with its "customers".

Francis Irving (mysociety.org) provided a vision of what electronic citizenship might be. He explained some of the mysociety websites - They Work For You, Fix My Street, What Do They Know – and suggested that they have succeeded where government has failed in giving power back to citizens between elections, by allowing everyone to become journalists or campaigners.

Over on the privacy panel, pessimism was the order of the day. Sociologist Alexander Hanff weighed in against the iniquities of Phorm, and spoke of his continuing attempts to persuade the CPS to bring a prosecution against those involved in the experiment to date. His closing message: "Watch this space!"

Two speakers noted that the web and webspace do not actually belong to us - that therefore the owners of that space can dictate what goes on in it, and our best hope for freedom is in a falling-out between commercial interests and government. Jason Clifford expressed the alternative view: the internet is no more than an ongoing conversation, and the government have as much business regulating it as regulating a phone call.

No great explosions over at the internet regulation session, where Sarah Robertson of the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) politely agreed to differ with Frank Fisher’s view that there should be no regulation of internet content, and Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon issued a plea for more research-based policy.

It was very clear that the IWF is looking to learn from its clash with Wikipedia late last year – and even appears to be saying that it might take a slightly less prescriptive approach to images categorised as "level one" – ie the least indecent, and most subject to debate.

Lastly, the database state session followed some well-worn tramlines. David Moss analysed the National ID scheme on its own terms of reference and found it wanting - it was totally dependent on the biometrics working, and they do not yet do so to an acceptable level.

David Clouter provided an overview of databases that record childrens’ data, and how schools do not seek consent before fingerprinting children. Andrew Watson returned to the same issue, looking at the health database and how the government seemed eager either to ignore consent issues or to rely on "implied consent".

If the panel sessions were largely about people agreeing strenuously with one another, the afternoon debate (in Cambridge), between Government Minister Bill Rammell, MP and David Howarth, MP summarised in one short exchange what the real issue is. Both speakers agreed that the other side "just don’t get it".

Both spoke of balance. Bill Rammell reiterated the government view that the greatest civil liberty of all was the right not to be blown up, killed or terrorised. Those who opposed CCTV were, he suggested, out of touch with the ordinary people of Britain.

David Howarth claimed that liberty went much deeper, that it was more than the absence of risk, and that if we had taken the government’s line in 1940, we would have surrendered at the first sign of war because otherwise, "people might have been killed". Some things, he argued, are worth fighting (and dying) for.

At the end of the day, did all the sound and fury signify anything much? From the LibDems, it elicited a commitment to a wide-ranging repeal Bill: it helped bind the Tories into what is a growing backlash against ten years of New Labour, increasing the likelihood that they, too, may end up repealing large chunks of what Labour have enacted.

But for the government, it probably made very little difference. After all, these were just white middle-class people speaking a language they no longer understand. ®

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