Leaders of the Online Revolution: Meet the Political Party Taking on UK Digital Rights

The online rights of citizens – their ability to be web freedom as well as privacy – are an area of growing concern. We speak to the UK’s Pirate Party leader Cris Chesha about the changing tide

In Iceland a revolution is underway. There are no guns, no dictators, and certainly no blood is being shed. This is a democratic revolution.

The Pirate Party, standing for Internet and data freedom, has seen a meteoric growth since it was formed in 2012. A year after its launch in the country it won three seats on the Icelandic parliament and now opinion polls have given the party the biggest percentage share of the vote – almost 24% of the total vote, more than double what it was at the start of the year).

“They achieved explosive growth on the back of widespread unrest; the country had had enough of being pushed around by corruption and bankers, and they got together and did something about it,” says Cris Chesha. “They’ve really inspired a lot of people to look to Pirates as a way to be heard above the drone of mainstream politics.”

Chesha hopes to dispel the belief that the party is just about fighting for Internet rights

Chesha is the newly elected leader of the UK branch of the Pirate Party – which has just celebrated its sixth birthday as an official political party– and he, naturally, wants to mimic the Icelandic success with the growth of his party.

But the challenge ahead is a colossal one.

In the UK’s general election in May the party put up six candidates for election who received a total of 1,130 votes between them – Chesha himself received 181 votes in the Northern seat he stood in. You might think that with more awareness of digital rights and mass surveillance, post Snowden and WikiLeaks, the party would have had more candidates representing it than ever before, but the number dropped compared to the previous general election.

In 2010, nine candidates stood for Parliament, getting just over 1,300 votes between them. The party fared better in the European elections in 2014 where it polled 8,500 votes in the North West of the UK.

There is a long way to go to reach Icelandic levels of notoriety; however, Chesha says he hopes to dispel the belief that the party is just about fighting for Internet rights. “Just like, for example, the Green movement are about more than just ‘the environment’, the Pirate movement is so much more than just an Internet lobby group,” he says.

“Obviously we have our core things that people know we will always campaign on – free Internet, freedom of communication, and so on, but given the current political climate, I think it’s time to get our messages of government transparency and participatory democracy out there.”

Achieving growth

The general principles that political parties under the Pirate label stand for can vary but core values include the support of civil rights movements, open information, privacy, and increasing the number of people involved in the democratic process.

Chesha says that the movement at its core wants to “drive democratic reform across the board” and to do this in the UK the party has to try to get its broader message to the public.  “We’re leading the charge, for example, on demanding that governments start using block chain technology to publish big, high-grade “6 Star” open transparency data,” he says. “A cryptographically verified and absolutely indelible, point-of-truth ledger of linked government data? Now that’s the kind of transparency Pirate Party UK can get behind.”

He and his party members believe that democratic control needs to be returned to the people. This means writing copyright laws that represent the people, having an Internet that is a common good and tackling surveillance issues.

A post-Snowden world?

Before Edward Snowden was granted permission to stay in Russia the elected Pirate Party members of the Icelandic parliament introduced a bill that would have given him Icelandic citizenship and protection from extradition if he made it to the country. It failed to get enough support but was an important gesture that recognised the importance of the leaks made by the former CIA employee.

Image courtesy of the Freedom of the Press Foundation

Image courtesy of the Freedom of the Press Foundation

Since then the discussion around surveillance and Internet privacy has slowly moved on – more so in the US than the UK. Scrutiny of the NSA has been higher than ever before and the leaks promoted the passing of the USA Freedom Act that was heralded as “the most important surveillance reform bill since 1978” by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Meanwhile in the UK the debate hasn’t achieved anywhere near the same level of prominence. The country’s biggest police force has only recently confirmed – after a seven-month battle with intervention from the information regulator –that it is running a criminal investigation looking at the journalists who handled the material provided by Snowden. Chesha believes that the “underwhelming reaction” of the UK public has “galvanised the authorities to do more”.

In reality the outcome of the UK’s general election – which surprised pollsters and led to a majority Conservative government – has resulted in an attack on civil liberties, rather than the strengthening of them. Lawyers have been on strike and the Human Rights Act could be changed, among other worrying developments. “The UK has managed to mandate a Tory government to throw out the rule book and declare all-out war on everything from online privacy, to civil liberties, to freedom of information, to every-day cryptography in the space of just two months,” Chesha says.

In making these announcements the government has faced a backlash from campaigners and civil liberties groups; it has also been defeated in the courts over surveillance issues. Two Members of Parliament, from opposing parties, defeated a controversial government snooping bill in court.

David Davis and Tom Watson took the government to court over the unlawful creation of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 (DRIPA) which exists to allow security services, such as GCHQ, to have access to phone and internet records of individuals, after the European courts revoked the previous legislation that allowed access. The British courts ruled that DRIPA was unlawful as it didn’t comply with European law.

You and I are living in a Post-Snowden world, but, sadly, I don’t think the UK authorities are

The Open Rights Group said that it hoped the government, after the court’s decision, would listen to the legitimate concerns about blanket data retention. “When the government forced DRIPA through Parliament a year ago, they denied our parliamentarians and the British public a proper debate about how our personal data is being kept by telecoms companies and accessed by the state,” said ORG’s Executive Director Jim Killock.

Chesha said he isn’t sure whether any government should be trusted with surveillance, and that if they’re not open to scrutiny “then they will fail you”.

“That’s what we have here, and how we got into this mess,” he said. “We have secret projects that have been conceived, built and left to run wild with absolutely no oversight – either internally or publicly. You and I are living in a post-Snowden world, but, sadly, I don’t think the UK authorities are.”

The digital tide is turning

It’s the increased awareness of data collection and surveillance that has the biggest chance to change how systems work in the UK. There is an increasing desire, supported by leading figures, that the judicial system should be put to work when the comes to overseeing surveillance.

Image and featured image courtesy of Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com

Image courtesy of Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com

David Anderson Q.C., the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, has said that the use of intrusive powers has to be shown to be necessary by officials and spelled out by the law. “The current law is fragmented, obscure, under constant challenge and variable in the protections that it affords the innocent.  It is time for a clean slate,” Anderson said in his 370-page review of snooping legislation.

A separate independent surveillance review conducted by the Royal Services Institute, recommended that requests for interception of communications should be authorised by a senior judge and warrants that are signed by a Secretary of State should be subject to judicial scrutiny. The report’s chairperson Michael Clarke said the current system is “complicated, overlapping and in some cases, creaky”.

And a third review, conducted by the Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on intelligence and law enforcement data sharing, said that the UK government needs to be more transparent in the “number and nature” of requests to overseas communications agencies. His report, however, wasn’t published in its entirety, just a summary of his findings.

These reports indicate that the tide is slowly turning and that people in the UK recognise that surveillance can’t continue in the way that it has been happening.

The only way that such surveillance activities can be enacted with any hint of democracy is if the programs are public knowledge to begin with

“The only way that such surveillance activities can be enacted with any hint of democracy is if the programs are public knowledge to begin with. The programs must be selective (no more blanket data collection), fully regulated, and transparent in how they operate,” says Chesha.

“Targets for data collection must be rare, justified and approved by a fair judicial process. The judicial process itself should be as transparent as possible, with public oversight. Is it really asking that much?”

While the UK public might not be at a place where it will be electing Pirate Party members into positions of power just yet, the party does have answers to the technological challenges that impact upon everyone living in the UK and further afield.

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With new generations of voters who have grown up with technology, care about their privacy, and want to know what is happening with their data, it is only a matter of time until this growth is kick-started.

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