It's a Generational Thing


The divided opinion on the Investigatory Powers Bill may be more to do with age than anything else

After its revelation in late 2015, the Investigatory Powers Bill is now close to becoming law. While it makes its way through Parliament, the divide between those who welcome it and those who despise it has become more visible. Edward Snowden called it “the most intrusive and least accountable surveillance regime in the West.” In similar distastefulness, Don’t Spy On Us, a group of civil liberties advocates, led a determined campaign to urge MPs to generate more effective challenges against the bill. Though even amid such controversy, Theresa May, the UK Home Secretary, has consistently stood by the new laws, arguing that the bill would help police forces and intelligence agencies alike to combat terrorism and crime in what has become increasingly difficult digital times.

All the while, the British public, on the whole, has been reasonably favourable of the bill, it would seem. According to a poll by YouGov, most people support the new powers for law enforcement and security agencies. In November, 53% of people supported the bill, with just 31% opposing it and 16% who said they were not sure. Months later in January, most people remained supportive of the bill at 45%, though those against it went up to 37%, and 17% of people were undecided still.

Look more closely at the statistics in these polls, however, and a more interesting proposition is presented. It may be plausible to suggest that the differences of opinion on the Investigatory Powers Bill may stem from the great divide between younger citizens and the older generation. In the poll, 54% of 18 to 24-year-olds, as well as 45% of 25 to 39-year-olds, opposed the bill in November. On the other hand, 46% of 40 to 59-year-olds and 63% of 60-year-olds and over supported the bill.

The numbers reveal an interesting notion. An overwhelming majority of young people oppose the idea of their internet traffic being collected and made available to intelligence agencies and the police (though the bill specifies that only the names of the websites one visits will be collected and the content of the sites will remain veiled). Contrastingly, the majority of older people embody a juxtaposing consensus. But why does such polarisation between millennials and baby boomers on this bill exist? There could be a number of reasons.

One theory as to why there is such a divide on the bill relies on the generic conventions of the modern digital world; older people are not as engaged with technology as younger people. It is easy to see why. Millennials are the ones who have grown up in the midst of numerous technological innovations which have changed the world drastically. The internet, smartphones, tablet computers and social media sites are just some of the many things younger people would be familiar with. According to the Pew Research Center, 85% of 18 to 29 year-olds own a smartphone, whereas only 54% of 50 to 64 year-olds do. Those younger smartphone users are more likely to engage in the services a smartphone provides, visiting more sites and using more apps. As a result, a vast amount of data and information about the user is generated and stored, which may cause great concern when others want to access this. Older people, on the other hand, are less likely to feel this way; for instance, only 65% of 50 to 64 year-olds have a social media account, and just 49% of 65 year-olds and older have one. Of these older users, though, they are less likely to be as active on these platforms as the more enthusiastic and engrossed younger generation. Thus, when laws allowing law enforcement agencies to access their internet data are proposed, the level of uncomfortableness with such a powers is much lower. Technology, overall, perhaps plays a much less significant role in the daily lives of older people. Their natural detachment, therefore, encourages them to support Theresa’s bill. In contrast, the younger generation live a life more engaged and integrated with technology, and so are less favourable of surveillance and bulk collection of their data.

Another possible reason for the divide on the bill is the idea of political apathy and skepticism; a condition that is apparently more commonly found amongst younger citizens than older citizens, as the statistics from numerous general elections may suggest. The assumption here is that younger people are more disengaged with politics because they think so negatively of it. They are apparently enraged with the dishonesty and disingenuousness of their so-called representatives, and their suspicion of the speculative rotten corruption that takes place behind the scenes of the “political establishment” forces them to rebel and oppose anything and everything that the government proposes. The dismissal of the Investigatory Powers Bill by younger Britons is, therefore, inevitable, according to this line of thinking. Indeed, this may hold some truth. Millennial Dialogue, a research project set up by the Foundation For European Progressive Studies, found that a mere 17% of UK youngsters were very interested in politics. Additionally, events like the recent Panama Papers fiasco do not give politicians a great image. Thus, younger Britons may simply be opposed to the bill suspecting some kind of unknown underhanded agenda lurking behind the proposed laws. But this is very much a narrow-minded interpretation. There could quite possibly be young people who are engaged with politics, absent of such a negative outlook on it, and yet still oppose the bill.

All in all, the generation gap when it comes to the Investigatory Powers Bill is an interesting dynamic. Yet the YouGov poll struggles to be truly representative of public opinion when only just a little under 2000 British adults participated in it. But the importance of the issues it presents are undoubtedly significant nevertheless. The terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris further push the need for stronger security measures in the digital world, whereas events like the Apple-FBI legal battle pull the debate towards greater use of encryption and fewer powers made available to government and law enforcement agencies. The Investigatory Powers Bill, if passed, will likely set the standard for future surveillance laws across the globe. People of all ages will, thus, pay close attention.