Realpolitik (see also Political realism; from German: real “realistic”, “practical” or “actual”; and Politik “politics”) refers to politics or diplomacy based primarily on practical considerations, rather than ideological notions or moralistic premises. In this respect, it shares aspects of its philosophical approach with those of realism and pragmatism.
"Manchmal werden Leute den Wald vor lauter Bäumen nicht sehen."

Monday, 2 April 2012

033 - Government and People: The Line in the Sand

The social response towards proposals to widen government access to personal communications will speak volumes about our position as a free nation.

This has been a busy week for the office of David Cameron. After the budget which left some reeling over a 50p tax cut and Osborne's misreading of demographics concerning a suspected 'granny tax', plus an embarrassing Cornish pasty humiliation during which the coalition majority seemed further out of touch; Cameron claiming to have last purchased a pasty from an establishment no longer in operation whilst his Chancellor admitting he could not remember when his last sampling of the product was, the situation was looking poor.

However this came coupled with the cash-for access scandal where former Tory treasurer Peter Cruddas claimed that £250k was the going rate for dinner with the PM - a faux pas which lead to his resignation later the same day, and No 10 after some deliberation and an early refusal, publishing the details of such meetings - alongside a woman left hospitalised in a critical condition with 40% burns over an ill thought out and unnecessarily inflammatory game of politics and poor advice regarding potential - and ultimately abandoned - union strikes by fuel drivers.

It would be understandable then after one of the most bizarre weeks in recent politics, to expect Mr Cameron and his team to have chosen to spend the weekend in a quiet retreat in order to soothe their wearied nerves, and try to regain control.

Instead, the Home Office has announced that new legislation likely to be announced in a forthcoming royal speech next month would allow intelligence officers to monitor otherwise private communications. The government has claimed though that it would like to push the policy through 'as soon as parliamentary process allows', in similar vein to the Digital Economy Act 2010.

Whilst the intelligence agency involved - GCHQ - would not be able without warrant to access the content of such communication, they would be able to identify individuals or groups and keep record of who one was in contact with, when, and for how long.

The logic behind such policy would be that further measures of control over communication serves a 'protective' purpose - and I use the word 'protective' entirely loosely and with great disdain -. The policy also follows on from wider moves on the online world, including attempts to force ISPs to either contact customers illegally downloading files or sharing copyrighted material online, or cut them off from web access altogether.

The 'method of control' through presumed cohesion and informant monitoring has been trailed before, for instance in February 2010 Labour mooted rewarding citizens who informed on people committing benefit fraud with some of the money saved as a result. Divisive and invasive, or an example of wider observation for the greater benefit of society? Judges also warned of 'big brother society' impacts of allowing the police to monitor suspects via GPS without advanced approval. As former UK information commissioner Richard Thomas pointed out at the time; ID cards are another prime example of a system which when poorly constructed or implemented, can have significant impact on perceived mistrust and monitoring..

The justification for communication monitoring would be that such added insight for the relevant authorities would allow for an opportunity for crime prevention and early interrogation, for instance regarding potential terrorism threats, prevention of illegal activity, or early reaction to other disorderly conduct as witnessed in the English Riots of last year, a topic upon which we wrote extensively. Indeed at the time, Realpolitik postulated over the true implications of David Cameron's 'zero-tolerance' rhetoric, and what this may mean for the future of our freedoms as a society.

For instance, during this speech he pledged to support the 'zero tolerance' approach, a policing system associated with the United States, whereby even minor offences may be prosecuted severely in order to send out a clear message to the masses regarding tolerance of illicit behaviour. With regards to the current legislation, this draws a dark series of suggestions.

Let us remember however, that this policy is by no means David Cameron's invention. Indeed as referenced in the video above, a similar tracking policy was originally mooted by the Labour government but dropped in 2009.

As one may expect, such news has been seized upon by Big Brother watchdogs and general public, likening the intrusive impact of the policy to various literary publications, and displaying a strong backlash. Indeed, the mere suggestion of the looming legality of such a government system has a distinct Orwellian vibe. The Daily Mail has reported the concept has 'undermining privacy by stealth,' and an e-petition has been set up to force debate over the policy's abolition. Former Conservative leadership candidate David Davis has also condemned the plans.

Indeed further comparisons while not entirely like with like, demonstrate the intrusive nature of the legislation. Opening or tampering with physical mail if not the addressee for instance is prohibited under the Postal Services Act 2000.

A clear comparison must therefore be made with online communications in order to fully establish a reliable and valid model for operating in this domain with respect for privacy. It should also be ensured that no arbitrary measures are used to ascertain which communications are malicious. For instance, volume of communication may be entirely benign, as time of day, as individuals involved.

The details of this policy are somewhat disconcerting, particularly when it comes at a time when political and media attention is somewhat elsewhere. For instance, the suggestion that authorities require a warrant to access content of communications is appropriate and a necessity in such policy. However under what circumstances would such warrant be granted? As we have already witnessed, situations involving warrant for arrest and detention without trial - and with limited or even no conclusive evidence - have plagued governments even recently.

However in order to balance this article with a sense of perspective, have we also ourselves to blame for a culture of ubiquitous observation? For instance, given the ease with which people post personal information so freely to social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter, or agree to terms and conditions with various e-mailing clients - often without reading the finer details - are we not already subscribing to an 'open-door' society?

Advocates would go further, suggesting that those with nothing to hide should not be concerned. After all, a warrant will be required - if GCHQ suspects a worrying pattern of communication - before any action regarding content can begin. Furthermore, the sheer volume of information available through each individual's everyday communication would make it impossible to monitor it all. However in contrast, what will determine what is considered 'right' and 'wrong' while not sinister at present, must be protected from any future degree of corruption.

The social response to this measure though will be an indicator of our stance as a democracy. That this policy is so readily justified as a measure of observation for our own protection, a play on fear of the consequences were such policies not implemented, is potentially a defining moment. It is a sorry state when the oppressed are successfully portrayed as criminal, while the oppressors a beacon of 'right' and 'justice'.

To grant such powers under the premise of 'protection' undermines the detailed and sophisticated nature of the policy at hand.

However, it is an even sorrier state when the former accepts their subservience so willingly, and ignorantly. That we would gladly remain under such a false impression of freedom and protection is the core of the issue that this policy must highlight. A largely implicit, yet constant psychological device using explicit means of divide and rule and 'us versus them' for the purpose of persuasion, thus ensuring the reliable and perpetual adherence of the masses.

Our acceptance of our 'need for protection' from the higher echelons, and our deference thereto is whilst a commonality of organised society, none the less deplorable. That we should so wantonly offer up our freedoms, and so willingly sacrifice our liberties and forthwith any perceived line in the sand under the assumption that it be for the greater good is an affront to the democratic freedom of expression we so freely claim to promote.

The sad reality of this policy remains. Whilst the public may not like the idea of this policy, they will likely defer to its requirements, accepting as ever that only those at the helm of the ship may control its direction. But is this the right move forward?

Join the debate.

- Realpolitk -

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