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'Lest We Forget'

Colin James

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Remembrance Day a very important point in our year. However while there is a concentration of minds towards those who fought to maintain our freedom and paid with their lives, this article today in The Guardian reveals the consequences for us if we fail to realise what is happening every other day in the name of freedom.


The Guardian, Sunday 8 November 2015 by John Naughton

Despite the government’s assurances that privacy will be safeguarded, the draft investigatory powers bill is deeply and dangerously intrusive
Reading through the draft investigatory powers bill on Wednesday evening, one name came to mind, that of Frederick Douglass. He was an African American former slave who became one of the most eloquent campaigners for the abolition of slavery and was the living refutation of plantation owners’ contention that their “property†lacked the intelligence to function as independent citizens.
Douglass was a remarkable orator and at least as remarkable a writer. His autobiography is one of the glories of the 19th century. In it, he records how, as a slave, he managed to learn to read, partly due to the initial kindness of his owner’s wife. But when her husband learned of this, he forbade her to continue. “The first step in her downward course,†recalls Douglass, “was in her ceasing to instruct me. She now commenced to practise her husband’s precepts. She finally became even more violent in her opposition than her husband himself. She was not satisfied with simply doing as well as he had commanded; she seemed anxious to do better. Nothing seemed to make her more angry than to see me with a newspaper. She seemed to think that here lay the danger.â€
What had happened, of course, was that his master and mistress had realised that reading and slavery were incompatible with each other. “From this time,†he writes, “I was most narrowly watched. If I was in a separate room any considerable length of time, I was sure to be suspected of having a book and was at once called to give an account of myself.â€
As the US republic evolved, the lesson of Douglass’s insight – that there is an indissoluble link between liberty and the freedom to read what one chooses – was baked into its civic culture. It is what made American librarians into such doughty defenders of private reading. “Lack of privacy and confidentiality chills users’ choices, thereby suppressing access to ideas,†says the website of the American Library Association.
“The possibility of surveillance, whether direct or through access to records of speech, research and exploration, undermines a democratic society,†it continues. “Confidentiality of library records is a core value of librarianship. One cannot exercise the right to read if the possible consequences include damage to one’s reputation, ostracism from the community or workplace or criminal penalties. For libraries to flourish as centres for uninhibited access to information, librarians must stand behind their users’ right to privacy and freedom of inquiry... The right to privacy is the right to open inquiry without having the subject of one’s interest examined or scrutinised by others.â€
These lofty arguments cut no ice with the rulers of the UK’s national security state. The draft bill proposes that henceforth everyone’s clickstream – the URLs of every website one visits – is to be collected and stored for 12 months and may be inspected by agents of the state under certain arrangements. But collecting the stream will be done without any warrant. To civil libertarians who are upset by this new power, the government’s response boils down to this: “Don’t worry, because we’re just collecting the part of the URL that specifies the web server and that’s just ‘communications data’ (aka metadata); we’re not reading the content of the pages you visit, except under due authorisation.â€
This is the purest cant, for two reasons. The first is that, in a world dominated by machine-learning technology, the metadata is what intelligence services really crave because it can easily be mined for patterns and connections. The second reason is that metadata can be incredibly revealing, as the German parliamentarian Malte Spitz discovered when studying six months of his own digital trail in 2011. But Herr Spitz’s metadata was just detailing his physical movements. The details of one’s clickstream can be equally revealing, as Mikey Smith, the Daily Mirror’s online reporter, brilliantly demonstrated by showing that homepage URLs do not require a warrant under the new bill.
Given that the distinction between metadata and content is eroding and the fact that, in a digital world, so much of our reading is done online, what we are looking at is the end of private reading in this country. This particular provision in the bill is highly intrusive and will become more so in the years to come. The political calculation underpinning home secretary Theresa May’s draft legislation is that the great British public, which is famously relaxed about surveillance, will wear it. She may well be right.
As Frederick Douglass shrewdly observed over a century ago: “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.â€
With the government wanting to watch over us at all times and local government assisting them trying to close our libraries, we appear to racing towards a modern form of slavery. Remembrance Day may become the point that we will not only think of  those wasted lives, but also remember the freedoms taking away from us and never given back. As a commentator to the article said:
"And today we'll watch the Cameron government lay wreaths to commemorate those who died for freedom.
The hypocrisy could not be more sickening".
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