Enforcing Magna Carta in the age of Cyberwarfare, Surveillance and Electronic Impersonation

All roads round Runnymede will be closed on 15th June as the Queen, the Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Master of the Rolls commemorate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta at Runnymede. Sunday Worship on BBC4 on 14th came from Odiham, whence King John had set out to meet his Barons. It featured a splendid address from The Master of the Temple where the Barons, including 7 Bishops, had plotted their tactics). He reminded us of the background, particularly the role of Stephen Langton, (the Archbishop King John never wanted). Langton believed that laws came from God, not the King. He not only helped with the drafting, he arranged for Magna Carta and the more significant revised versions under Henry III, to be copied and “published” across the Kingdom via the Church – to prevent the Monarch/State from backtracking. Today some would argue that the occupants of Buckingham and St James‘s palaces have joined those of Lambeth Palace among the defenders of civil liberties against threats from those who now occupy the site of the Palace of Whitehall and their allies and accomplices in the Palace of Westminster.

I have blogged in the past on the tension between those who believe that the laws come from God and those who believe in the divine right of the State including with regard to identity policy  Those who rabbit on about trust and identity in on the on-line world might do well to remember that the main Western world’s main service for checking identities, the Notaries, until recently reported to God, via the Archbishop of Canterbury (in Common Law Countries) and the Pope (in Roman law Countries). For high level global trade the Scriveners provide the underpinning, (e.g which version of which e-mail, between whom and in which language was the contract) for the services provided via operations like Lloyds Register and DNV, Meanwhile surveys as to who is trusted with our identities and personal information in on-line world show that on-line retailers and internet service providers have “earned” approximately the same level of trust as journalists and politicians. They come below government (central or local) and well below the banks.

When Sir Tim Berners Lee, the Stephen Langton of the Internet, received the freedom of the City of London his address to the Common Council on the role of the City in creating and preserving the rule of law instead of the state led through to the potential role of London in the on-line world. His calls for a global on-line On-line Bills of Rights have been well covered by others. I would, however, argue that it is not only impossible to achieve in practice, but a red herring. We need “merely” to apply the same law on-line as off-line.

That does, however, require abiding by the spirit, not just the letter, of Magna Carta. That means looking at the theological basis of what Stephen Langton was trying to achieve. We also need to remember that the current threats to civil liberties are very similar to those that led up to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. James II had lost the popularity he had won by taking charge of the efforts to put out the Great Fire (blamed at the time of the terrorists of the day) and had put down the original London-wide Penny Post (supposedly used for scandalous letters between lovers as well as for business), because his men could not steam open the letters.

In a modern secular society I doubt that most of the population would be happy with the Archbishop of Canterbury as the prime guardian of Civil Liberties against the state, but the fourth key player in the celebrations at Runnymede is the Master of the Rolls, the third most senior Judge in Britain. Past readers will have noted that I have called in the past for the oversight of privacy and surveillance in the UK to be properly resourced and report via the Master of the Rolls, That leaves open the question as to whom the Master should be responsible (other than God). At the end of the final discussion paper of the 2003 -5 EURIM – IPPR study into Partnership Policing for the Information Society , I tentatively suggested that the ultimate oversight for the policing should be a committee of both House of Parliament.  

The Home Secretary’s statement to parliament on David Anderson’s report into the practical working of the UK’s surveillance law, published a week before the Magna Carta celebrations, should be the starting gun for an open and constructive debate. The overall objective should be to better reconcile the protection of the public from fear and abuse (whether from on-line stalkers or those planning terrorism) with the protection of “peaceful dissidents” and whistle-blowers from action supposedly designed to address organised crime or threats to society as a whole. We should also remember that most of the public wants more, not less surveillance (including for the reasons well-illustrated in the current Channel 5, Caught on Camera, series).

The arguments should not, therefore be less about the degree of surveillance that is reasonable or acceptable. They should be more about the accountability of those organising it or demanding access to the results.

We should also remember Archbishop Langton’s mistrust of the draftsmen in the royal chancery, without which Magna Carta would probably not have been drafted, let alone distributed (by the Church not the Sheriffs) and thus remembered.

Those who understand how modern legislation is negotiated, drafted and implemented might reflect how little has changed in 800 years.

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