Nicholas Lezard: Leave my web browsing history alone

This is worse than the nightmare world of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon


There was an intriguing detail that emerged in the season of programmes on Radio 3 last week that was devoted entirely to Schubert. Apparently the reason that so few of his important letters survive is that the secret police in Vienna in those days went around opening everyone's mail – so no one wrote any important letters.

We are now approaching something like the same conditions of state surveillance, and will definitely be there if proposed legislation comes into force. The Government would like to be able to monitor, thanks to the services of GCHQ, the records of every email and every website visit of every person in the country. Ministers "stress" that email contents will not be looked at – just who we're sending them to. Warrants will still be needed to open them. And if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you.

Does this bother you? I sincerely hope it does. On one level, I do not mind the idea of the Government reading my emails, on the grounds that any spy reading them will learn, at the very least, something about sentence construction. They will not learn about any seditious activities on my part either: if I intend to call for the overthrow of the Coalition regime through means either peaceful or violent, I will do so in a public forum such as a newspaper column, or Twitter, or Facebook, and not in a private correspondence.

But, on balance, I'd really rather they left the contents of my mind, or my browser history, to myself and, where applicable, whoever I'm writing to. I have had enough of this kind of thing, and we seem to be sleepwalking into a potentially very nasty state of affairs indeed.

It is worse than the nightmare world of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, the hollow cylinder of a prison in which every inmate could scrutinise every other inmate: the idea was to generate automatic good behaviour, but it sounds like Hell.

No, this is a murky world supervised by unaccountable spooks, run by people with elasticated morals, where civil liberty is a redundant concept, and freedom of expression a dangerous joke. And as Paul Chambers, of Robin Hood Airport fame, can attest, the surveillance is quite capable of being undertaken by idiots.

It is, in a way, unsurprising news. Britons are already living in the most snooped-on society that the earth has ever known. The scrutiny may not be malign, as it was in former Communist states, East Germany in particular – but then there is no way to legislate against a government's malign intentions. It is very interesting indeed that objections to this policy are raised only by opposition parties – Labour tried this when in power. The machinery for a very vicious administration is being cobbled together under our very noses.

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