British Beef

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England, the land of Magna Carta, continues hellbent on its transformation into full-blown police statehood, offering in the process a glimpse at what our own country’s legislators will push for in the coming years.

The latest affront to liberty comes in the form of a War on Terror law which — surprise! — has almost immediately been put into service against British citizens. The law, by way of banning “attempts to elicit information about (members of armed forces) . . . which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism,” essentially serves as a truncheon for police to use when threatening photographers who dare to snap pictures of them. Such an act is deemed “intimidating” to the armor-clad men carrying metal clubs, and the law provides for penalties of up to ten years in prison.

Not content with preventing citizens from photographing the police whose salaries they pay, the British government is attempting to make it impossible for photographers to take snapshots of anyone, period. Even worse, it’s being done out of a supposed concern for “private data” — which means, as ever, the private data of the politically connected and powerful. The directive in question comes from the ominously-named Information Commissioner’s Office, which has decreed that any photograph in which any person appears may be banned from publication if that person refuses to consent to his image being used. Keep in mind here that “publication” covers not just newspaper articles, but everything down to personal blogs, Twitter accounts, and Flickr streams. Moreover, according to the law, it is up to the photographer to judge whether the picture might prove objectionable, and hence to act as his own censor. Essentially, this directive makes it impossible to document the shady dealings of any figures who do not want to show up on anyone’s front page, whether print or web-based. The freedom of “private data” is the freedom to suppress documentation of illegal or unethical conduct.

And that’s not even the worst law on the table. Under the Digital Economy Bill, photographers would essentially lose any pretense of copyright — in order to assert creative control over their works, they would be required to register each image, in each iteration, with a government agency of dubious provenance and nebulous powers. Failure to register — and to waste the time and pay the exorbitant fees inevitably attached to such bureaucratic endeavors — will leave your work open to any thief who happens upon it (that is, if anyone can be labeled a thief when operating with full legal sanction; if so then the entire theory of modern governance falls apart).

A few months back, I suggested (in “Skirting the Surveillance State,” Jan.–Feb.) that “there is no reason that we should not be able to document the presence of a bank of traffic cameras, or a mobile CCTV van idling on the side of a calm street for no apparent reason.” While this remains true in the abstract, it is a course of action increasingly imprudent as the British government finds ways to crack down on its subjects. It doesn’t take a conspiratorial bent of mind to recognize that these laws constitute an assault on any idea of open government. The use of copyright is instructive: Parliament has never hesitated to use IP laws to bludgeon anyone violating the copyrights of politically connected and favored media corporations — for instance, another portion of that same odious Digital Economy Bill requires UK universities to police their wireless networks, actively monitoring for any hint of downloads of copyrighted material. And yet the copyright of photographers is little more to them than a license to print money.

While I am generally in favor of expansive fair-use provisions, in this case copyright serves as a bulwark against de facto government ownership of all photographs intended for publication. While newspapers like the Times or the Telegraph, gossip rags like the Sun or the Mirror, or media empires like the BBC or Rupert Murdoch’s Sky can afford to register all iterations of their photographs, and go toe-to-toe with agencies or celebrities over the rights to their images, that is not an option for unaffiliated journalists. This combination of laws will essentially kill off independent photojournalism, leaving investigation in the hands of those who will protect the powerful to preserve their access to them. Which is to say: these laws do exactly what they were intended to.

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