July 18, 2014

Breaking away

On Monday night, I asked ORG Edinburgh this:

If the same small number of large organizations own the primary means by which we communicate with each other and monitoring continues to be pervasive, will it matter how Scotland votes in the September referendum?

One of the attendees took this to mean that I was predicting the end of the nation-state, like John Perry Barlow.

In fact, my intent was narrower, about reclaiming the Internet from the many powers that want to control it. For example, see Telegeography's 2014 map of undersea cables, whose placement is dictated by physics and geography. The map makes it obvious where to place wiretaps - or backhoes. Neither geography nor physics will change after independence; nor will the data collection habits of everyone from Facebook and Twitter to the UK and US governments. The recently struck down EU Data Retention Directive (2006) was never a focus for Scottish protest.

Really, I was just curious about the September 18 referendum on Scottish independence and hoped to provoke some discussion about it. In Edinburgh, at least, it seems hard to get anyone much excited: the yes campaign is vague, the no campaign is negative, and it's much easier to find widespread anger about the bedroom tax.

Yet by September 18 those two things may be inextricably linked by the divergence in Scottish and English political leanings that began in the Thatcher era. I lived in Scotland for a year or two back then, and the general sense was that Scotland was being governed by a hostile foreign government. Thatcher broke the unions to widespread loathing, and policies like the bedroom tax bring back the worst memories of the conservatives during that period.

But is Scotland really miserable enough to risk breaking a union that's lasted since 1707? There are no tanks in Parliament Square, no armed forces camped along Glasgow's Sauchiehall Street, no persecuted religious adherents, and the freedom of speech and association is about the same as in the rest of the UK. The economic realities are unclear; the Scottish government's white paper, Scotland's Future (PDF), is vague but optimistic. In terms of national security policy, while I'm sure the Scots resent being surveilled by the English, it's not clear how much they object to being surveilled by other Scots. I heard some complaints, for example, that Scotland's transport concessions are dispensed via an entitlement card (the original name for the 2006 UK national ID card) that makes it easy to track the vulnerable should the government ever wish to do so - a class issue as well as a privacy one.

What I never thought about until a few months ago was what England would be like without Scotland. Will we see checkpoints at the border to stop health tourists fleeing the 2012 Health and Social Care Act changes to the English NHS - and prevent families seeking free higher-level education for their teens from emigrating?

The UK government's anti-independence messages have been embarrassing, threatening that Scotland would lose access to the BBC, be refused membership in the EU, and have less clout on the world stage than it does as part of Britain. (The possibly more likely converse is avoided: Britain, shorn of Scotland, might lose a little strength itself.) Among the myriad analysis papers, the most relevant is the one on security, which suggests that Scotland would lose access to international information-sharing and expertise. Elsewhere, St Andrews University researcher Eric Stoddart's risk analysis suggests that lacking both resources and economies of scale, an independent Scotland might be forced to adopt more automation, resulting in more but less effective surveillance.

England may want to keep Scotland, but elsewhere the talk is isolationist: the government's disdain for the EU. Its pesky convention on human rights, which, the departing veteran moderate Kenneth Clarke reminded everyone, was drafted by British lawyers.

Alan Travis painted a particularly cheery picture in the Guardian:

...such a policy will give the Conservatives an excuse to bang on about the alleged "evils of Strasbourg" between now and election day. As far as they are concerned those evils involve foreign rapists who can't be deported and terror suspects who can't sent home, which means they will be able to bang a populist drum on crime and immigration while blaming foreign European judges - all in one hit.

In New Statesman, Anoosh Chakelian argues that breaking away would not ease extraditions and that Britain's human rights are the same as those in the EU convention\. However, privacy-related EU judgments tell a different story. The European Court on Human Rights ruled against the UK's practice of holding DNA samples taken from the innocent in Marper; and the anti-democratic passage of the DRIP bill stomps on the April 8 European Court of Justice judgment that invalidated the EU Data Retention Directive. The UK has also steadily opposed elements of the data protect reform package.

If you were Scottish, is this the country you'd want to stay with? "This is a decision for centuries," someone said to me on Monday. Independence might be better for Scotland; it will certainly be worse for England - but not for the reasons the government is giving.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.