Friday, May 21, 2010

Liberty in the UK

Regular readers can probably guess that were I a citizen of the UK I would identify as a Labour supporter. I am, essentially a Social Democrat after all. But that's on the economic/social safety net axis of the political compass. On the political axis I'm basically a lefty libertarian and that part of my political make up stood up and cheered at some of the reforms proposed by the Tory/Lib Dem coalition yesterday:

The Britain of today is watched constantly by CCTV cameras, is preparing for a national ID card, slaps a "crown copyright" on most government data, and can now censor websites and eventually boot people off the Internet.

According to the new Liberal Democrat/Tory coalition government, that's all about to change. The coalition today released its unified policy statement (PDF), and for techies and privacy advocates, there's lots to like.

  • We will scrap the ID card scheme, the National Identity register and the ContactPoint database, and halt the next generation of biometric passports.
  • We will outlaw the fingerprinting of children at school without parental permission.
  • We will adopt the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database.
  • We will review libel laws to protect freedom of speech.
  • We will further regulate CCTV.
  • We will end the storage of internet and e-mail records without good reason.
  • We will create a level playing field for open-source software and will enable large ICT projects to be split into smaller components.
  • We will create a new "right to data" so that government-held datasets can be requested and used by the public, and then published on a regular basis.
  • We will introduce measures to ensure the rapid roll-out of superfast broadband across the country. We will ensure that BT and other infrastructure providers allow the use of their assets to deliver such broadband, and we will seek to introduce superfast broadband in remote areas at the same time as in more populated areas. If necessary, we will consider using the part of the TV license fee that is supporting the digital switchover to fund broadband in areas that the market alone will not reach.
In the few hundred yards around the home of 1984 author George Orwell, there are literally hundreds of CCTV cameras both public and private. Private citizens in the UK can be compelled to provide DNA samples without criminal charges brought against them, teens who get into any kind of trouble can be slapped with ASBOs, antisocial behavior orders, basically a juvenile equivalent of dangerous offender status and lose big chunks of their civil rights.

The authoritarian, borderline totalitarian impulses in New Labour, combined with calculated, pandering appeals to people's worst fears, class suspicions and harsh reactionary criminal justice views have led to some seriously disturbing excesses. I'll applaud anybody, even the mixed bag of neoliberals in the Lib Dem/Tory coalition, who reverse some of them.

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