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Matthew Parris

Who’s afraid of a snooper’s charter? Ask Google

4 May 2013

9:00 AM

4 May 2013

9:00 AM

Forgive me, but let’s go straight in. Readers of a sensitive disposition look away, but there’s a serious reason for the exercise I suggest that those with access to Google might like to attempt. There’s a thing called the AdWords Keyword Tool. You can find it at adwords.google.co.uk/-keywordtool. It is provided by Google for the benefit of online advertisers keen to select words or phrases they can use in order to catch as many Google searchers as possible in their net. So it will tell you how many people in the last month included in their search terms (say) ‘anti-wrinkle cream’: 22,200. But it is invaluable, too, to anyone curious to know what our fellow Britons are Googling.

This column’s focus is the blocking of the government’s plans for a ‘snooper’s charter’ by Nick Clegg. To get a sense of why I think that measure might silently disconcert more citizens than our MPs may imagine, try some terms on Google’s Keyword Tool — or take my word for it. Here are the numbers for UK searches including these expressions: crab lice: 2,400; haemorrhoids: 74,000; incontinence: 90,500; chlamydia: 135,000; vibrator: 135,000; X-videos: 500,000; masturbation: 550,000; gay porn: 1,000,000; porn: 37,200,000. These are the figures, as I say, for only one month. Added up, the totals begin to approach the entire population of the United Kingdom, so it is to be hoped that there is a degree of overlap between groups of Google searchers, and that some people are making a great many repeat visits within the same month. Ogle and Google, it seems, share millions of fans, and there are constituents’ lives undreamed of in their MP’s philosophy. Much that matters in many people’s thoughts is hidden.

About this I’ve written here before. Though the blizzard of recorded data on the life of modern man may appear to make our culture more transparent than ever, there are dark areas in the way we think, dream, worry and behave that cannot easily be tracked and are very little disclosed or written about. No more than we can understand how it was to live in the Dark Ages, will a future age will be able to guess through studying our books, our newspapers, emails or broadcast media how life feels to those living it in the early 21st century. Huge swaths are off the record.


Politicians need to bear in mind the submerged parts of their electorate’s psyche. It might help them understand why people will cheerfully tell opinion pollsters how shocked they are by this or that, yet remain puzzlingly resistant to liking the politician who trumpets the same disapproval from the dispatch box. As Saul Bellow remarked. ‘Public morals are a kind of no-man’s-land in which anyone may declare himself sheriff.’ But this isn’t a no-man’s-land where people actually live. Politicians who think they can visit their electorate at home fail to understand that their voters too are only visiting. People live elsewhere. Just look at what they’re Googling.

Or, rather, don’t: not if you’re the police, the taxman, a newspaper reporter or the family doctor, because people wouldn’t want you poking your nose in. It won’t usually be because their web-browsing indicates anything criminal; it might be because they’re ashamed; it might be because they’re embarrassed; or it might simply arise from a powerful if inchoate sense of privacy; but whatever the cause, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, did Conservative ministers a great favour last week when — quite unexpectedly — he blurted out on the radio that the coalition’s draft Communications Data Bill, which was to appear in next week’s Queen’s Speech, is ‘not going to happen — certainly not with Lib Dems in government’.

Mr Clegg had woken up to what this bill would aim to do. Intended (at least ostensibly) to give the police better access to private communications for the purposes of safeguarding national security and (for example) pursuing paedophiles, the measure would confer new powers (the first in a western democracy to do so) to compel internet companies to keep a record of every text, email, call and website address sent, made or visited by every individual in the UK, including details of what we’ve accessed on the web, and whom we have contacted on social networking sites. The content would not be recorded, only the identity of the individual and the site he visited or the contact texted or emailed. Data would be available to the police, the Serious and Organised Crime Agency, the intelligence services and HMRC; records would be retained for one year. In short, internet companies would be compelled to keep a log of every citizen’s travels in cyberspace.

I have nothing useful to contribute to the debate about whether our police and security apparatus really need all this stuff; about whether the measure would be workable and enforceable; or about whether anyone seriously intent on concealing their identity could do so by manufacturing a cod web identity. Alex (Lord) Carlile, the Blair government’s independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation (whom I recall as being always, after a good deal of grave humming and hah-ing, in favour of it) has entered a notably wan defence of the proposed legislation (‘It’s not a snooper’s charter, it’s a life-saver’) in the Daily Telegraph.

I’m ill-qualified to contest Lord Carlile’s case. I observe only that at the time I was reading his column there were 99 responses in the online comment section beneath it, mostly anonymous. Four claimed to agree with him, though one of these thought the state should psychologically profile every citizen, and may have been being sarcastic. Two weren’t sure. 93 of the 99 were — with more or less venom — opposed. Telegraph readers and online posters are not an exceptionally libertarian bunch, so this may be significant.

Theresa May and her Cabinet colleagues are perhaps lucky that although there have been rumblings about the ‘snooper’s charter’, the national debate had not really taken off before Mr Clegg scuppered the whole thing. Possibly the debate never would have taken off, and the bill would have passed into law. But if my research and hunches are right, a surprisingly large number of voters would have liked the Conservative-led government just a little bit less as a result. And they wouldn’t have said why.


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