Privacy, Integrity, Passwords and the BC NDP


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I want to belong to a political party that privately and publicly exhibits the moral integrity to be a beacon in society for progressive social change, including advancing the rights and privileges of citizenship for all.

I think personal privacy, and the kind of interpersonal respect that underlies our Charter protections of our privacy are critical.

So when the BC NDP leadership decided that leadership candidates had to turn over to the party their social media passwords, a number of people started questioning the principles the party holds dear. Many have concluded this to be an intolerable position for a political party to take.

But it appears to many that just vetting candidates by looking at their Facebook pages is not enough; remember Ray Lam? The party wants passwords so they can peek inside candidates’ social media existence to see what isn’t easily apparent to others.

I can understand the logic of wanting to do this, but it’s unreasonable when we consider the bigger issues, not the least of which is the compromise to privacy the party is now endorsing.

Below I’d like to examine reasons against this plan, and what’s wrong with some of the arguments justifying it.

Murray Langdon explored some solid arguments about why this is an inappropriate move for the party. The one most compelling is that a leadership candidate handing over passwords allows the party investigators to see private communication from others to the candidates without asking their permission.

Powell River MLA Nicholas Simons says he will not turn over those accounts and passwords. Mr. Simons says not only is it a violation of his privacy, but also anyone he’s connected to. And you know what, he’s right.

In the case of Mr. Simons, he is not an unknown to the party having represented his area in the legislature for 6 years. Why they feel that now is the time to pry into his life (or his friends’ lives) is anyone’s guess. But even so, why should a candidate have to put his or her entire life and social network on display or up for scrutiny?

For those who say they have no problem releasing their accounts and passwords, I hope they check with their network first because I’m not sure they want someone snooping around their private lives either. They didn’t give permission for a third party to look into their lives, nor should they get it.

But if this is the only way a party feels it can adequately get to know its candidates then the party is in dire straits. Privacy and someone’s private life should not be on display because a political institution is insecure about the potential for embarrassment.

– via Murray Langdon’s Comment

Beyond these compelling reasons to oppose giving up passwords, let’s look at some of the justifications floating around out there:

No one is forced 2 run 4 leader & satisfy rules

This is a disturbing argument. Essentially it means that an organization could develop whatever rules it likes for its leadership and if people don’t like them, they can choose to forgo running for the leadership. Accepting this privacy invasion would not be all that different from the party requesting passwords to candidates’ personal email accounts. After all, something embarrassing in Facebook could get out, but people’s personal emails can also be leaked. Another easy extension would be a request that candidates declare which people and organizations they have contributed money to, to make sure that they don’t have “inappropriate” connections.

One consequence of this is a chill effect on participation. I have spoken with 2 bright, talented people in the last 2 weeks and a few more in recent months who have explicitly stated how they would not run for political office at any level because of the inappropriate compromises to privacy in our political culture right now. It’s one thing to expect political fallout to something like drunk driving in Maui, but it’s quite another to lead a “normal” life, but fear the psychological and emotional consequences of character investigations/dirt-digging by the press, but perhaps worse, by the party you wish to run for.

Have you ever broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse? Have you ever been on welfare? Have you ever had a picture taken of you with a beer bottle in your hand? Have you ever seen a psychologist? Have you ever been in a 12-step program? Have you ever had an email conversation with someone where you have been critical of an important public figure?

Do you want the answers to those questions [and others] to be determinants of whether you wish to give of yourself to public life before your political party will accept your candidacy?

It’s also akin to the argument that since I’m not a terrorist I shouldn’t mind whatever draconian nude body scanners the government decides to make me walk through to get on an airplane. If I don’t like the invasion of privacy, I can choose to not fly, which shows up in this unfortunate argument:

Only if something 2 hide RT @ilovethearts: handing over pw won’t help. Just infringes on privacy Solution is nothing problematic on sites

If you aren’t fluent in Twitter-speak, one person argued that handing over passwords won’t help and only infringes on privacy, with this response: only if someone has something to hide. This is the justification for a police state. It is simply unacceptable.

And here’s one last unfortunate argument in favour of turning over passwords, that 99.99999% of people are not running for the leadership of the BC NDP. This suggests that most people are not being subjected to this invasion of privacy. The reality is that the candidates and everyone who has communicated with them are affected by the rule even though only 5 people are running for the leadership.

There is a core notion of justice that everyone ought to be treated the same way. Certainly people running for public office should reasonably expect to be held to a higher social standard; they are offering themselves as leaders, after all. But I don’t think it’s an acceptable argument to say that since a party is only violating the rights of less than 1% of the population, that’s OK because the number is so small. There are reasons why it is wrong to ask people’s religions in job interviews. Everybody deserves privacy protections, not almost everybody.

I fully expect that if the BC NDP had sufficient resources to investigate to a great degree, if it feels it is appropriate vetting of leadership candidates to ask for social media passwords, in the next election the 85 candidates and everyone running for riding nominations would be bound by the same demand. This could stop many people from even bothering to try to run.

And in this case, the chill effect ensures that anyone wanting to be an MLA would have to be willing to allow the party leadership to evaluate their personal communications. This means potential self-censorship for those considering running for office in the future, and since the internet never forgets, a number of potential candidates who have ever said “unacceptable” things cannot retroactively sanitize controversial statements and may decide to never bother running for anything. What kind of talent would we lose then?

What is most sad, however, is that because Nicholas Simons is questioning the demand to turn over his password, there has been at least one query about challenging his nomination or kicking him out; though it’s unclear whether the call is to kick him out of the party or the leadership race. Should there be these kind of repercussions for someone who engages in dialogue about a privacy violation? If so, then we will need to tolerate more of a chill over public participation.

In the end, I want to belong to a political party that values respectful dialogue, recognizes personal rights and freedoms, and doesn’t promote a tone of forced obedience to potentially arbitrary and/or undetermined standards of vetting of personal communications.

Nicholas Simons is right to refuse to submit personal passwords. The BC NDP needs to abandon this leadership requirement.

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Stephen Elliott-Buckley

Post-partisan eco-socialist. at Politics, Re-Spun
Stephen Elliott-Buckley is a husband, father, professor, speaker, consultant, former suburban Vancouver high school English and Social Studies teacher who changed careers because the BC Liberal Party has been working hard to ruin public education. He has various English and Political Science degrees and has been writing political, social and economic editorials since November 2002. Stephen is in Twitter, Miro and iTunes, and the email thing, and at his website, dgiVista.org.

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5 thoughts on “Privacy, Integrity, Passwords and the BC NDP”

  1. One of the gravest challenges we face as people is addressing the contemporary state’s intrusion into our private affairs.

    When the NDP Party openly promotes such an intrusion, is it not obvious that the Party cannot be trusted? Clearly its agenda must be to ‘know-all’, a form of offensive coercion of individual freedom at every level beyond ones unstated inner thoughts. I find the idea despicable and repugnant.

    This agenda alone should be grounds enough for a thinking person to want no involvement with the NDP at all. But if one hasn’t reached this general understanding long ago regarding political Parties (and the vast majority haven’t), there is little hope for our future, for fascism is surely pounding on our door.

    Seriously, what sort of sicko fcuknut dreams up, and can openly suggest, such a reprehensible and unconscionable policy? This has everything to do with control and nothing to do with governance in a democracy.

    1. state intrusions can be reasonable. the Charter says they can’t exist unless they can be justified. our courts determine that. hopefully we’ll have a chance for our justice system to determine if g20 protesters’ rights were unjustly violated last summer in toronto.

      when it comes to organizations and our rights, we have some pretty robust federal and provincial privacy protection legislation. organizations that organize community t-ball now have to comply with information privacy legislation, proactively, or face the justifiable wrath of a society that expects personal information to be safeguarded.

      the ndp is an organization that needs to ensure it complies with provincial privacy legislation. regardless of how the legislation ends up being interpreted by the courts, and regardless of what finding the bc information and privacy commissioner arrives at after her office investigates the ndp [this was announced today], society will and ought to debate the scope and application of privacy legislation.

      this is why i included the word integrity in the title of this piece. the ndp is an organization that exists in public opinion. people in a healthy democracy will debate the behaviour and activities of organizations, especially political parties.

      it’s funny what you say about the vast majority. a slim majority of BCers chose not to vote in the last election. the vast majority of those who did vote, did vote for party candidates. but the vast majority of citizens do not belong to political parties. i’m pretty certain less than 100,000 BCers belong to a provincial party, which represents less than 2.5% of the population. so i think you’re on to something there.

      in the end, democracy is best served with a public airing of contentious issues. this is why when people have suggested Nick Simons dealt with this privacy issue internally, i have disagreed. once the party, as a private organization operating in the public domain, publicly released its leadership rules, the choice to demand social media passwords from its leadership candidates became an issue in the public domain.

      political parties can be private bodies, but as parties that wish to run the province, they need to be sufficiently transparent and accountable to society as a whole, not just its members or leadership. and what sufficiently means is, of course, a matter of healthy debate in a democracy.

      i think those that wish this issue would just go away out of the public spotlight should have considered the repercussions of the password rule in the first place. since they didn’t [or did, but chose to accept the consequences], this could be a positive learning experience for what society expects from political parties about acting on principles and being transparent to society.

      of course, it could also be a missed opportunity to learn. i’m hoping it’s not a wasted lesson. i want to belong to a political party that can learn positive lessons from such debates.

      time will tell.

      1. “…political parties can be private bodies, but as parties that wish to run the province, they need to be sufficiently transparent and accountable to society as a whole, not just its members or leadership. and what sufficiently means is, of course, a matter of healthy debate in a democracy.”

        And isn’t that the rub? The hypocrisy in politics, in Party politics in particular, is overwhelming. There is no transparency because if there was, the entire hoax called democracy would implode.

        We do not have elections, we have auctions.

        Money behind the scenes plays for the campaigning and the media exposure, and at one time it expected to be paid back. Today they know they will be paid back because they are the same operation: coaching staff and the political players, both with the same objectives.

        Politics in BC and Canada is not seriously debatable anymore, not from a democratic and representative point in any event. We will continue to endure the ever-steady encroachment on our lives by the political forces until it becomes unbearable; at that point there will be a revolution. Unfortunately, the longer this takes the bloodier it will become.

        Alternatively, we the people may become so domesticated and docile that the will to overtake the political-farmers than the cattle on the range. Its laughable how blind we all are to what is going on, holding out hope that our democracy can correct these problems. You know, the same democracy where the Federal election is decided before it reaches Manitoba; the same democracy that allows Mulroney with 42% vote to impose NAFTA on the entire nation; the same democracy that permits Gordon Campbell to say one thing during an election campaign but then immediately do the opposite, and then be rewarded by, allegedly, ‘the constituents’, with another term in power.

        Its time we stopped deceiving ourselves about our country, one of the leading arms dealers on the planet now, and one of the key cogs in the Empire’s machinery.

        As H.L. Mencken said in 1919:

        All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man: its one permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him. If it be aristocratic in organization, then it seeks to protect the man who is superior only in law against the man who is superior in fact; if it be democratic, then it seeks to protect the man who is inferior in every way against both. One of its primary functions is to regiment men by force, to make them as much alike as possible and as dependent upon one another as possible, to search out and combat originality among them. All it can see in an original idea is potential change, and hence an invasion of its prerogatives. The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos.

        Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are.

  2. I was at a leadership debate last night and this issue was raised. All of the candidates supported Nicholas Simons and Dana Larsen being in the race and vetting ideas fully.

    However, Adrian Dix made some comments that concerned me. Specifically he suggested that since the rules are put in place by democratically elected party officials, that they’re okay. Perhaps he needs to brush up on his constitutional law, but there are (or at least should be) limits to most offices, and violating rights like privacy is one that needs to be taken seriously. He also repeatedly emphasized the need for everyone to respect the NDP’s institutions and processes.

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