Richard Stallman fears an attack on civil rights in Britain

Thursday November 25, 1999
The Guardian

Imagine that you are afraid of a knock on the door. Imagine that the knock could be the police, coming in secret to interrogate you. Imagine they can demand that you decrypt files for them and demand your code keys, even to get evidence against you. In effect, they can force you to testify against yourself, and it is a crime to refuse.

Imagine you are effectively considered guilty unless you can prove your innocence: mere failure to comply is the crime. If you do not have the key, you will be imprisoned unless you can prove it.

Imagine that they can behave arbitrarily, because their actions are secret. They do not need a court's authorisation to demand your testimony. And if you tell anyone - your friends and associates, a news reporter, even in most circumstances an open courtroom - that you have been forced to testify, they will imprison you just for telling.

Imagine a special secret court, with no jury, where decisions are made by judges chosen for their sympathy to the prosecution. Imagine that they can hear evidence from the prosecutors in secret, so you do not even have a chance to deny it.

You might expect such a system in China or Iraq, but this proposal comes from Britain. It was part of the Electronic Communications bill but has been withdrawn, probably to be reintroduced shortly in a separate Regulation of Investigatory Powers bill. (Proposals to extend government power are often secreted in bills with opposite sounding names.) The country that gave the world the concept of the rights of citizens, of protection from abuse of government power, of the right to remain silent and not be compelled to testify against yourself, is tearing up the concept.

The rot began under the previous Conservative government, which passed an "anti-terrorist" law saying that - for certain crimes - if you refuse to answer questions, that can be held against you.

As a supposed protection against abuse, courts may not convict based on silence alone. But the same law established that an official accusation of membership in a prohibited organisation can also be held against you. This, too, is not sufficient by itself . But if you are accused of belonging to a prohibited organisation, and you refuse to answer police questions, you go to prison.

The justification was IRA terrorism; but the cure is far worse than the disease. A century on, IRA bombing will be just a chapter of history, but the effects of the "cure" will still be felt.

The New Labour govern ment is eager to extend this policy to other areas. I was not greatly surprised to learn that the same government also plans to eliminate the right to a jury in criminal trials (The Guardian, November 20, page 1) . The new proposals would gladden the heart of an Argentine general.

British officials insist that you can trust them to use their power wisely for the good of all. That is absurd. Britain must hold to the tradition of British law, and respect the rights of citizens to a fair trial and non-self-incrimination.

They pretend that the plan would not really consider you guilty until proven innocent, because the official forms that demand your code keys and your silence are officially the proof of guilt. In practice this is indistinguishable from requiring proof of innocence.

If you live in Britain, what can you do?

Don't assume that you are safe just because you are "not a criminal"; almost everyone breaks some laws, but even if you do not, you could still be suspected. Your friends and correspondents are likely to be next.

So arrange innocent-sounding "code phrases" with them now, things like "Agnes has a bad cold" (but don't use this one!), so you can inform them you were interrogated by the secret police, without giving the police a way to detect it.

You never know what might lead the secret police to your door. Take the necessary precautions now, because the only thing worse than fearing the knock on the door is being oblivious to the danger.

1999 Richard Stallman. Stallman founded the Free Software Movement in 1984 by launching the free operating system GNU, often referred to as "Linux". Verbatim copying and redistribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium if this notice is preserved.