My Left Foot

“Why” said Jeremy Paxman, “should we be bothered by this RIP Act? After all, unless you’ve something to hide, you’re not going to be worried by the prospect of government reading your email”.

It was a Wednesday night, ‘Newsnight’ in fact and the BBC had invited me to take part in the programme’s lead story, The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. All of a sudden and prompted by the Guardian’s front page revelation, the media had woken-up to the news that the infamous RIPA was to be extended, perhaps even to traffic wardens, a tongue in cheek comment, that Newsnight picked-up.

Mr. Paxman needed some convincing and at first, he didn’t recognize the legislation as a gross invasion of privacy and violation of our civil rights. My own role that evening, other than offering him a brief, was to take part in a three way discussion with a Home Office Minister but time and the Minister’s reluctance to participate in such a very public and live debate, left me spectating from the sideline and the politician exposed to Paxman’s tender mercies. Under pressure from the inimitable Jeremy, the Minister was made to look like a Stalinist goon with two left feet, who just couldn’t avoid kicking the ball into the back of the Home Office net every couple of minutes. I’m sure the Home Secretary will think twice before sending one of his deputies to depend the indefensible in future.

If the cynical Paxman could be persuaded that RIPA is an unbelievably stupid piece of legislation then there’s always hope that someone nearer the top of the political tree might wonder why on earth we’ve got this far in the ‘Mother of Parliaments’. As one expert on the legislation suggested to me, ‘RIPA is an example of a ‘catch-all’ piece of legislation. The Government is attempting to rush through an Act which sweeps up any conceivable evolution in communications technology. They tried this with CCTV to reduce crime and it failed miserably and they’ll do the same thing with the Internet, which will fail equally miserably”.

If Government is going to obsess about the Internet, there are other, equally pressing areas, which I believe, should be attracting more attention. The other day, while reading a story on terrorism, I followed a link to a page on how the FBI had forced one popular US website to remove a video of the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The hyperlink sent me to a site which broadcasts the darkest and most disgusting images of human misery and depravity. Foolishly, my own curiosity encouraged me to open the MPEG file of the ‘execution’; the decapitation of a young Russian soldier by a Chechen guerilla with a kitchen knife. It’s an image of bloody horror that will haunt me and yet it’s one that your child or mine can just as easily find and share in seconds.

Where should our priorities be I wonder? Snooping on every citizen’s email or wondering whether the ‘right’ to leverage the Internet as a medium for free speech and free expression has gone too far?

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