My speech on digital freedom to the Liberal Democrat Conference

Making your first speech at a political conference is tough, especially when you know that the media are watching you as well as delegates there. That didn’t stop me, as a first-time conference attendee, from making a speech to the Lib Dem Spring Conference in York last Sunday, on the Digital Bill of Rights motion. Having been persuaded to by Julian Huppert and Tim Farron to mention digital freedom at Conference, I decided to make such a speech, which I reproduce below:

Good morning Conference,

I stand here to make my first speech because digital freedom is an issue on which I joined the party back in 2009. If I was in Glasgow last year, I would’ve put a card in on that issue, but as it’s not the focus of this motion, let me be brief: it’s impossible to get transparency on this issue when control has been gifted by the government to quangos and private companies. Believe me. I’ve tried. I’ve sent freedom of information requests about it. How can we even trust MI5, MI6, GCHQ, the NSA, to not spy on their own citizens? We can’t. If we want to criticise the restriction of freedom of information in China and North Korea, we can’t ignore when it happens here, in the US, in France, et cetera.

I would like to talk about metadata, today. It’s described as something that’s harmless by the security culture, but it’s really not. There is no such thing as non-identifying metadata. My fellow representative from Calderdale, Alisdair McGregor, said to me last week, with the abundance of people called Sarah in the party that we both know well, it’s like the famous scene from Spartacus. And he’s right: with my forename being relatively common, it’s up to metadata to fill the gaps.

Everyone has metadata in their databases. Tesco does. Even this party does: I’m a student. I currently study at the lovely University of Leeds. I’m LGBT. I’m not really a big fan of alcohol, but I’m not a vegetarian. I’m a humanist. This is my first conference. Those are several items of metadata that the party probably knows that don’t identify me on their own; that’s the point. Together, it suddenly becomes a lot more obvious that you’re talking about me. Metadata, when harvested by the government without our consent, creates a database state where you wouldn’t even need to mention my name.

I joined the party on several issues: LGBT rights, civil liberties in general and internet freedom. I’m proud to shout our record on these issues from the roof. And if there is one person in this auditorium today I trust to fight to the death on those issues, it’s Julian Huppert. So please vote for the motion which proudly bears his name, because without digital freedom in the 21st century, we can’t secure any freedom.

Thank you.

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