Do you want the Home Secretary to be able to order the storage of vast quantities of data about who you email and call, your physical location, your web browsing and Facebook sessions? No, neither do I. Untargeted, blanket powers like these are an invitation for future governments to invade your privacy.
That’s why this week I pressed the pause button on the Communications Data Bill that was going through Parliament. A special committee was established to look at the legislation and its conclusions, published on Tuesday, were crystal clear – the legislation didn’t strike the right balance between our security and our personal privacy. We need to have a fundamental rethink and produce better proposals which give the police and security professionals the powers they need without going over the top.
My decision sparked controversy in some quarters, with the usual allegations that by attempting to protect civil liberties you are, by default, on the side of terrorists and paedophiles. I’m not usually inclined to dignify such arguments with a response, but let me just repeat what I said in the papers: of course we need to look at what new technology means for how we protect people from serious crime, and we will need to take new measures to address the problem. But we can do that by striking the right balance between our collective security needs and our individual right to privacy.
That is a difficult balance to strike – even more so when you are in Government. But it is no use standing up for civil liberties in opposition if you then forget all about them in power. It’s the same pattern that sees politicians rule out a sane approach to drug laws until they are safely out of office and only then they reveal they always favoured the kind of approach this week’s Home Affairs Select Committee suggested – a willingness to look in an open-minded way at all the evidence and alternative ways of dealing with the problems caused by drugs.
In all of this I am bewildered by the way some of the biggest opponents of any kind of independent regulation of the press see no problem with the apparently limitless Government regulation of individual citizens. Liberalism for me is about protecting people from overmighty institutions while enabling people to get on in life. That’s not easy and we must always ensure that we ask ourselves tough questions, but I’m confident we are playing our part in getting the balance right. If you want to help the Liberal Democrats as we campaign for civil liberties you can support us here.