Control of Information in the UK

Knowledge is power.

In my lifetime, I have been eligible to vote in two referendums, both of which were designed to make our society more democratic. The first was the 2011 Alternative Vote (AV) Referendum which would have made our voting system fairer. The second was the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum which would have freed Scotland from a government that less than 15% of the people of Scotland voted for in the 2015 general election. They were both rejected by vote as a result of government and corporate control of the collection and dissemination of information through the media in ways which shape public behaviour.

Despite initial YouGov polls showing that people were in favour of AV in principle (44% Yes to 34% No), it was rejected it in the actual referendum (68% No to 32% Yes). This is quite a remarkable turnaround in public opinion. The “No” campaign, with the help of the Electoral Commission and backed by the Conservative government succeeded in making AV seem confusing and thus secured a no vote.

To outsiders, the Scottish Independence referendum result may seem confusing. “It remains a mystery why Scottish voters didn’t put their homegrown politicians in charge of the entire country and economy” shrugs The Register. To the Scottish people, this is somewhat less confusing. It has been statistically proven that the BBC was biased towards a “No” vote in their news coverage of the referendum. As well as this, you could be forgiven for thinking ISIS were about to invade the country with the BBC broadcasting about the rise of the Islamic State almost constantly under a “breaking news” banner on channel one every day. With all three major UK parties and most news outlets against independence and the BBC and others warning that tough times would be ahead regarding security and the economy should the referendum succeed, Scotland rejected independence.

After the referendum, the Scottish people realized they’d been lied to and this was reflected in the 2015 general election which the Scottish National Party won by a landslide- but only in Scotland. The Conservative party were re-elected with a majority in the UK-wide election.

And Conservative they have been. Despite the European Court of Justice striking down data retention laws (read: mass surveillance) in April 2014, the UK government rushed the DRIP bill through parliament: “emergency” legislation forcing UK ISPs to retain records of customer phone activity and internet use. In an open letter, many UK legal academics expressed their concerns about the amount of power the bill gives investigatory bodies, deeming it “a serious expansion of the British surveillance state”. The bill means that even non-UK companies, such as Google and Facebook, must comply to requests for user information.

The bill was passed without a vote and made law one week after it was unveiled to the public. Many smart people expressed their disappointment at how much democracy had been shat on.

Not content with being able to see the communications of almost every living person with an internet connection, the government must have been worried that the same was possible in reverse: It was unveiled that Downing Street automatically deleted their own emails after 3-months. Downing Street insiders have commented that this has lead to disorganisation as there is no email trail from which to form a coherent narrative.

Now government wailing and gnashing of teeth has turned to being unable to monitor communications sent using applications which keep messages secret. Some messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, encrypt messages when they’re sent and decrypt them when they are received. This means the company cannot comply with DRIP as they don’t have any record of communication themselves. Megaupload took a similar approach after being shut down, re-launching as MEGA and using end-to-end encryption so that MEGA themselves do not know what the files on their system are. So now the government is putting forward proposals to ban such apps.

The government is effectively trying to ban private communication. They haven’t even made a secret about it. The small problem they have right now is that these measures contravene Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights; from Wikipedia, “Article 8 provides a right to respect for one’s “private and family life, his home and his correspondence“.

Fortunately, the Conservative party pledged to have a referendum on European Union membership in their manifesto. I wonder what the result will be?

This article was originally published on dennisjohn.net

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