Dissecting Corbyn’s “Digital Democracy manifesto”

First a disclosure: I am voting (well, I have voted) for Owen Smith.

Secondly, the good bits in Corbyn’s “manifesto”…

  1. Commitment to uncapped high speed broadband no matter where you are in the UK. This is a no-brainer and should be in any digital manifesto. How to implement it, however, is a different matter not covered here.
  2. Upholding of net neutrality. Once again, a no-brainer.
  3. Focus on teaching programming. This is something, oddly, that Michael Gove was quite keen on and it is an absolute urgency if we are to keep up with the rest of the world in terms of coding skills. The question is how do we deal with the Catch 22 situation of kids needing to learn programming, but not having enough teachers who know how to teach it, especially when those who know how to code are normally in fairly well-paid jobs.
  4. Legal protection for unwarranted online snooping. There’s no meat on this bone quite just yet, but let’s just say it’s not been great. Too many public bodies have been able to make requests in the past under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and data communications interception remains a hot topic in Parliament.

Now for the not so good (or, at best, wishy-washy) bits…

  1. The Open Knowledge Library seems like a good idea in theory, but publication of all publicly-funded research takes time and money. It’s not as simple as just whacking it on a website — the data would need to be available (presumably) and it would need to be indexable and presentable.
  2. The Virtual Meeting Places in the Open Knowledge Library for teachers and education professionals to share experiences and disseminate ideas — what will that do that current means of virtual collaboration currently don’t?
  3. The statement that they’ll reform the law on intellectual property so that “both producers and consumers benefit” says little more than “we know this is a problem and we will fix it so everybody is happy”. IP is a mindfield and we need a bit more than “Trust us, we’ll sort it” in a manifesto.
  4. The entirety of the Platform Cooperatives section. I’m presuming the first part is to provide financial help to those who create applications that enhance the usage of public services, but mechanisms to provide grants are already in place. How much would this finance help be? Would it replace any current systems of help? Once again, seems like a good idea on paper, but there really isn’t any meat on the bone.
  5. The Digital Citizen Passport. Some have pointed out on Twitter that this sounds exactly like the National ID Scheme by another name (although this is a bit unfair — the real awful element of that whole idea was the collection of biometric data). Currently people can access services via the Government Gateway which, whilst not perfect, has certainly improved over recent years. Rather than starting with an entirely new system, why not expand the GG so local services can be accessed with it too?
  6. Publicly funded software to be open source. News reports seemed to suggest that this would be mandatory, the document itself says “encouraged”. The issue here is twofold. Firstly, will this apply to out-of-the-box or mildly-bespoke software? Secondly, I see the benefit of doing this for all software built in-house (except perhaps GCHQ), but external developers often have whole libraries of their own code that they reuse to develop apps. The deliverable for a mobile app, for example, would be the compiled product. Expecting private individuals and companies to release their own code when it is not the code they’re delivering in the first place would be a very bad idea.
  7. Online Deliberation. I don’t have technical reasons for not liking this. I just need more online political rants with other people like I need a hole in the head.

In summary, the good bits are… well… good. But they’re also bits copied-and-pasted from pretty much every (sensible) party manifesto. We know these things are a problem, we’ve just not seen a forthcoming solution, even if there have been slow incremental improvements. There are a lot of holes, a lot of points where I don’t think the author actually knew what they were saying (“ Ofcom will protect network neutrality from… manipulation of software algorithms for private gain.” What does that even mean?), and a lot of “this would be good” without “this is how we achieve it”.

This is not a sole fault of Corbyn of course. It’s typical of politicos to push ideas out into the tech sphere that, at best, don’t really answer the question and, at worst, are impossible to implement. I’d recommend that next time, they go to actual tech experts rather than a think-tank.

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