Daily Archives: 20 May 2007

Peter Bazalgette on Privacy: a poacher turned game-keeper?

Peter Bazalgette has written a thoughtful piece about privacy and social networking sites, so for once I will dispense with the usual toilet jokes. I do think he’s got it slightly wrong however.

Firstly, attitudes amongst young people and those websites. I have to admit, I’m amazed at the number of people who are quite happy to have anyone read the most personal of information about them on sites like Facebook. One of the first things I did was to look at the privacy settings and find out what casual visitors to the site could learn about me. Very little, as it turns out, unless I let them. I can even change what my ‘friends’ can see. So I’m fairly happy.

On the other hand, clearly a lot of other users don’t have such concerns. They should, and maybe such sites should do more to educate them about the risks. With that said however, Bazalgette doesn’t seem to understand the technology. If I decided to join the “A woman’s place is in the kitchen” group I could do so, knowing that I could both leave and remove any public trace of the fact that I had joined in the first place. Even if I did make all my details public, a future employer would struggle to find me amongst the dozens of James Grahams (they’d have an easier time finding a Peter Bazalgette admittedly). To an extent I suspect people are indeed taking account of the risks, and concluding (rightly or wrongly) that they are worth taking.

But is there a chance that attitudes are fundamentally changing? I’ve noticed that the sort of people who have an exaggerated concern about their conduct as a 20-something being regarded as ‘private’ tend to have something in their past to be ashamed about. I don’t have an issue with people knowing that I used to be heavily involved with the Manchester University Film Society, but then, why should I? It is part of who I am, and I don’t believe I have fundamentally changed. By the same token, I find it hard to believe that David Cameron has fundamentally changed since his days as a member of the Bullingdon Club and I’m pretty certain John Reid hasn’t fundamentally changed since his days as a Communist.

These aren’t particularly private acts – we all leave traces, from photos to mentions in student union newspapers. I don’t believe we have a right to restrict the media from mentioning them – that is going beyond privacy and steps into censoring what is in the public domain. David Cameron doesn’t have a right, in my view, to keep his life before he entered politics private. He has a general right to privacy about both his past and present – one he compromises every day he flaunts his disabled child in front of the press. And he should be able to reconcile his past; if he can’t, it is an important issue.

So I don’t think these websites represent a particular challenge to people entering public life since most normal people don’t join toffs’ clubs or totalitarian political parties. If it introduces a little more Darwinian selection into the mix, that can only be a good thing (joining misogynistic Facebook groups even as a ‘joke’ suggests your values are dubious), but in the face of such things applying to simply thousands of people simultaneously, it will be balanced out to an extent by a degree of proportion – which can also only be a good thing.

We all need to get to grips with the implications that the internet has regarding privacy. I have to admit that from time to time I worry about whether I’m too careless about it myself. But social networking sites aren’t really the problem. Credit card details, passwords and those dubious black boxes that now sit in every single ISP’s office… that’s a different story.

Comical Tommy’s War against Information

Via Iain Dale, I come across Tom Watson‘s spirited defence of his decision to back the Freedom from Information (none of your fucking business) Bill. Apparently, the Tories Made Him Do It. But, for a bit more detail, here is his argument point-by-point (I’d comment on his blog, but he banned me years ago):

1. If the speaker had not guaranteed that MP’s expenses will continue to be published, I would not have supported the Bill. I repeat – you will still be able to see the expense tables like you have been able to for the last three years.

This is a mischevious half-truth. The fact is there are currently numerous appeals to the Information Commissioner calling for MPs to disclose more detailed information. The Commons’ expenses disclosure isn’t even close to the Scottish Parliament where literally every single invoice is available to view online.

Note that he says “you will still be able to see the expense tables like you have been able to for the last three years” – in other words the detailed information about travel expenses published earlier this year as a result of a case brought forward by Norman Baker would be the first to go.

2. Despite people saying that there is protection under the Data Protection Act, public sector bodies are still revealing the private correspondence between them and MPs regarding constituents.

If it is illegal now and yet people are doing it, it follows that it will still happen if this new Bill is passed. How does passing another law stop people who are already breaking the law? The issue is enforcement – yet the government forces the Information Commissioner to get along with a shoestring budget.

3. This Bill was put forward by the former Tory Chief Whip. Don’t be fooled by the disingenous comments and synthetic outrage of Iain Dale and his chums. Incidentally, he seemed to know how many MPs from each party had voted on the Bill yesterday afternoon – before they are made available in Hansard. He can only have got this information from a source in one of the Whips offices (I’m certain the parliamentary clerks would not help him). This suggests to me that he is part of a Tory spin operation – understandable but funadamentally dishonest in regard to this piece of legislation.

This is worth looking at because it is simply hilarious. Like Iain Dale, I was following the debate on Hansard, which now has less than a three hour time lag. I certainly agree with Tom that the Tories were equally complicit, but I don’t extend that criticism to individuals like Richard Shepherd, John Redwood and, yes, Iain Dale, any more than I do Labour rebels like David Winnick. For Watson to try to blame the Tories for this Bill when Labour has a majority and three times as many of them voted for the Bill as Tories is just eye watering, Comical Tommy stuff.

4. Finally – If Menzies Campbell thought so strongly about this Bill, why wasn’t he there to speak and vote against it?

Because like most MPs he usually has constituency work on Fridays. We can’t all lounge around in Westminster ready to serve as government lickspittles at a moment’s notice.

If I wanted to sum up everything that I truly find deplorable about the Labour Party, it is Tom Watson. A dirty tricks campaigner par excellence, a House of Lords abolitionist (and simultaneously supporter of the status quo), anti-electoral reform, pro-compulsory voting, bemoans the civil liberty implications of RFID tags while voting enthusiastically for ID cards, die-hard Blairite loyalist right up until he can detect the wind has changed whereupon he attempts to orchestrate a coup for newfound best friend Gordon Brown, friends of even bigger moron Sion Simon… what it all adds up to is a nasty little man who is just a little bit too much in love with totalitarianism.

Oh, and if you haven’t done so already, join the Protect Freedom of Information Facebook Group.