The Labour MP, Tom Watson, has tabled an Early Day Motion expressing concern at the surveillance of the internet activity of British citizens. It follows from evidence given this week to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, by Charles Farr, Director of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism. Farr revealed that the internet activity of British citizens which involve communication with platforms located outside the UK, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, were treated by the intelligence and security agencies as external communications, and as a result are not subject to the same warranting procedures, identifying individuals and addresses, which are required for communications between individuals within the UK. This has led to concerns amongst some that the British intelligence and security agencies are conducting indiscriminate mass surveillance of the internet activity of British citizens.
The (rather long) EDM by Mr Watson states:
This House notes with great concern that surveillance by GCHQ of every British resident using Google, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube has now been confirmed by the Director-General of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism; notes that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (‘RIPA’), has been interpreted to authorise mass surveillance of internet communications, content and meta-data sent inside the UK; notes that GCHQ justifies such conduct without a warrant on the basis that such data is ‘external’ under RIPA when mediated by a computer server in the Unoted States; believes this construction is flawed, contrary to evidence given to Committees of the House, contrary to written assurances provided during the passage of RIPA and contrary to the Interception of Communications Code of Practice; believes that continuous mass surveillance of the social media of every UK citizen is not only incompatible with basic human rights and the Magna Carta but exposes the Government to an avalanche of privacy claims; and urgently calls on the Secretary of State for the Home Office to bring forward legislative proposals to end these practices.
Early Day Motions (EDMs) are written public statements of opinion that are initiated by one MP who then gathers the signatures of other members who agree with the statement. They are formal motions submitted for debate in the House of Commons, although in reality very few are ever actually debated. Instead they are used primarily to draw attention to issues and to seek or demonstrate parliamentary support for a particular view or cause, and they can sometimes generate media attention and interest from the public. The number of EDMS tabled in each parliamentary session has grown considerably in recent years with over 2000 being tabled in each session since 2005. Most, however, attract only one or two signatures, and only a handful in each session attract more than 200.
EDMs can nevertheless be a useful indicator of parliamentary opinion and concerns. EDMs on issues relating to the intelligence and security agencies are rare. They tend to emerge, as with Watson’s EDM today, at times when the intelligence agencies have been involved in perceived scandals, abuses or intelligence failures. In recent years the number of intelligence-related EDMs peaked in the 2003-4 session in the wake of the war in Iraq, but there have only been a handful of intelligence-related EDMs in each of the last two parliamentary sessions. They do not, therefore, reflect a consistent and ongoing parliamentary interest in intelligence so much as a response to recent events or media reports. For those familiar with the literature on parliamentary scrutiny, EDMs on intelligence represent the fire alarm, rather than the police patrol, approach to parliamentary oversight of intelligence.
It will nevertheless be interesting to see how many signatures Mr Watson’s EDM attracts and who signs. It does perhaps reflect a wider parliamentary disquiet about the role of the intelligence and security agencies, and the ability of parliament to hold them to account, which might well feed into debates as the Parties begin to draft their manifestoes for next year’s general election.
There is much more about intelligence-related EDMs in our forthcoming book, Watching the Watchers: Parliament and the Intelligence Services, which is published by Palgrave in September.