Richard Stallman -- Waiting for the KnockNov 25, 1999, 08:12 (117 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Richard Stallman)
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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 that they can demand you decrypt files for them, and demand you tell them your code keys, even to get evidence to use against you. In effect, they can force you to testify against yourself, and it is a crime to refuse.
Imagine that for these offenses 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 they demand, you will be imprisoned unless you can prove it.
Imagine that they can behave arbitrarily, because their actions are secret. They do not need to get a court's authorization 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 that the only judicial control over these actions is 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.
Unfortunately, there is no need for imagination. This is a real proposal -- not in China or Iraq, as you might expect, but in Britain. It was proposed as part of the draft Electronic Communications bill (http://www.fipr.org/polarch/draftbill99/index.html), but has been withdrawn from there, probably to be reintroduced shortly in a separate "Regulation of Investigatory Powers" bill.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 and throwing it away.
The rot in the British legal system 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. Thus the first stone was thrown at the right to remain silent.
As a supposed protection against abuse, this law said that courts must not convict based on silence alone; they must have some other basis as well. But the same law established that an official accusation of membership in a prohibited organization can also be held against you. This, too, is not sufficient by itself -- which only means that the two together are needed for a conviction. If you are accused of belonging to a prohibited organization, and you refuse to answer police questions, you go to prison.
Of course, every law that undermines the rights of citizens has an "urgent" justification. For this law, the justification was IRA terrorism; but the cure is far worse than the disease. A century from now, IRA bombing will be just a chapter of history, but the painful effects of the "cure" will still be felt.
The "New Labor" government of Prime Minister Blair which replaced the Conservative government 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 (see The Guardian, November 20 1999, page 1). These policies would gladden the heart of an Argentine general.
When you speak with British officials about the issue, they insist that you can trust them to use their power wisely for the good of all. Of course, 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.
When you try to discuss the details, they respond with pettifoggery; for example, 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 considered the proof of guilt. That in practice this is indistinguishable from requiring proof of innocence requires more perspicuity than they will admit to.
If you live in Britain, what can you do?
So arrange innocent-sounding "code phrases" with them now, things like "Agnes has a bad cold" (but don't use this one!), as a way you can inform them that you were interrogated by the secret police, without giving the police a way to detect that you did so.
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.
Copyright 1999 Richard Stallman
Richard Stallman is the founder of the Free Software Foundation, the author of the GNU General Public License (GPL), and the original developer of such notable software as gcc and Emacs.
Ian G. Batten comments:
I spent quite some time with RMS ten years ago, and I have a high regard for his intellect and insights. I also have been campaigning within the UK on this topic.Richard Stallman responds:
Ian Batten was kind enough to mail me his response to my article. He argues that Americans might accept repressive measures more readily if we were more afraid of terrorism. That could well be true, since the US has employed such measures domestically in the past. It only shows that Americans can be just as foolish as anyone else. We must educate America, as well as Britain, to reject tyranny when it is offered as a solution to the problem du jour.
I stand by the use of the term "secret police". While the proposal does not involve a special and separate police force, any police force that interrogates people in secret is entirely qualified for the term.