Thursday 12 March 2015

Ethical policing on the internet

The law enforcement community’s response to the question of how the internet should be policed continues to raise a number of significant questions. And it’s leaving some representatives from academia and civil society in a bit of a bind.

Paul Bernal’s recent blog on a meeting organised by the Association of Chief Police Officers on this issue touched on some of these questions. The feedback he’s received is quite revealing.

One respondent was unhappy that various stakeholders had agreed to meet ACPO in the first place. They commented that “real debate between those who disagree on the deepest philosophical and ‘legal’ in the broadest sense matters, is hardly likely to take place at an event organised by (and ultimately for) law enforcement/the state.”

I don’t agree.

Its important for all responsible stakeholders to feel that their voices can be heard in a debate where everyone accepts that what is required is policing by consent. At issue is what everyone (or almost everyone) is capable of consenting about.

With new legislation focusing on how communications data should be retained and used for law enforcement purposes on the horizon, its essential that the Home Office and other interested parties consult as widely as is practicable in order that, when the proposals are presented to Parliament, politicians won’t need to criticize the measures on the grounds that insufficient consultation has taken place.

The dilemma for the representatives from academia and civil society is that, by becoming more aware of the practical problems facing the law enforcement community, they may feel encouraged to support pragmatic proposals that many people would shy away from. So do they risk being ostracized from their more radically-minded colleagues, whose views on issues related to communications data retention are not formed from any significant experience of the distress felt by victims of serious crime, who care less about the techniques used to deliver justice to serious criminals?

Academics and civil society campaigners that want to be reminded of the perils of being associated with a “bad” initiative only need think back to the manner in which Simon Davis from Privacy International was pilloried by some of his contemporaries when his independent research found that, actually, the Phorm initiative wasn’t quite as awful as its critics had wanted it to be.

It’s hard to remain dispassionate and neutral about such issues, and there will always be accusations that various academics have been captured by the law enforcement community if they indicate that they support proposals that benefit the law enforcement community. After all, who wants to make crime fighting easier …

Responsible academics ought to remain engaged with the policymaking process, and express their views from within the tent. It would never be appropriate (nor has it yet happened, to my knowledge) for an academic to take comfort in grandstanding from a distance, or causing so much fuss at meetings that when they threaten to eject themselves from the meeting, their offer is gratefully accepted.