Why the Tories are focusing on digital when there’s so much else to do

Photo courtesy of NPR

There’s been a lot of discussion about what’s not in the Queen’s speech. Given the monumental challenge of Brexit and a less than amenable Parliament, it’s no surprise Theresa May has chosen to let tricky issues like fox hunting and grammar schools fall by the wayside.

So, with the current political environment as it is, it’s striking that her government has chosen to keep the digital policies of the Conservative manifesto on an already daunting legislative agenda.

A new law will ensure that the United Kingdom retains its world-class regime protecting personal data, and proposals for a new digital charter will be brought forward to ensure that the United Kingdom is the safest place to be online.

Digital was never likely to pose the kind of backbench-wrangling troubles of some of those other policies, but the question remains: why is focusing on digital worth the Tories’ while?

The first motivation is (I hope) that digital is integral to our economy and society and that if the UK is to make a go of things after Brexit, we had better try to make our legislation keep up.

The second is (I presume) that the government thinks there’s enough public appetite for digital to be ‘dealt with’ that it’s worth finding time to get this done.

Regardless of their motivations, though, to be successful our new government needs to make sure they’ve found the right programme to build a digital Britain post-Brexit and that what they’re doing will actually address the root of public concern.

Building a digital Britain post-Brexit

To be blunt, the language of the manifesto was doom-laden. Thankfully, it’s now been tempered, and the government has added that it is ‘optimistic about the opportunities on offer in the digital age’. But in both the speech and its associated background briefing, there remains an emphasis on the harms of the internet and how it facilitates terrorism, child abuse and pornography.

For this legislative programme to make the UK the global leader in internet standards the government hopes we can be, we’ll need a much more nuanced conversation — one where politicians, civil servants and the tech industry work harder to understand each other and recognise that both sides have obligations to serve a society where digital technologies are now part of our bloodstream.

We hope the new digital charter will articulate a positive and lasting vision of how our democratic values of openness and tolerance are translated into our digital lives. Done well, this is an opportunity to bring together civic society, legal, academic, business and technical expertise and set a standard which could be an example to the world.

Being optimistic (which we like to be) both the digital charter and the new data protection law could be a starting point for building some of the structures digital Britain will need in the future. We’ll be working for that and proposing other measures needed to create a vibrant digital society as well as a thriving digital economy post-Brexit.

Being pessimistic (which we sometimes have to be) this could be used to establish a regressive, defensive and fear-infused approach to the internet. That’s especially likely if the policy makers in charge don’t understand digital technology — and some of the more clunky political pronouncements around internet ‘safe spaces’ and ‘relevant hashtags’ aren’t going to help anyone find the right answers.

‘Dealing with it’ and addressing public disquiet

The second motivation for pushing ahead with this legislation (and dedicating a whole chapter of the Conservative manifesto to the issue) has been less explored.

Public attitudes to the internet are perceptibly shifting. As technologies have more and more impact on our society, the changes they bring become more apparent.

On the doorstep politicians hear about their constituents’ fears around job insecurity as a cabbie loses out to an Uber driver, or a Deliveroo cyclist wonders what to do now she’s pregnant. And the public is understandably appalled when technologies we all use to plan a school outing or arrange some shift work are misused by others to organise murderous outrages.

Aggregated, all these concerns can lead to a sense that ‘something must be done about the internet’ — a mood that’s fueled when complex societal problems are blamed on single pieces of technology.

So far there’s been little research around public attitudes towards and understanding of the internet, which is why Doteveryone is conducting a national survey to get a better picture. We’ve also been exploring and prototyping ways to explain how the internet actually works.

It’s time we all paid more attention to how people feel about the ways digital is changing our world — particularly to those who are being left behind by these changes. That’s why we’re glad this Parliament is still thinking about digital, and that these policies didn’t go the way of fox hunting.

But we need to properly understand where people have concerns and how those concerns can best be addressed — not just make kneejerk responses.

There’s a long and sorry history of bad legislation brought in when ‘something must be done’. Let’s make sure we don’t add to it.