Parties short of ideas on how to secure Britain’s digital future

There’s few enough bright sparks here. ev0luti0nary, CC BY-ND

Opening Labour’s 2015 manifesto made me wonder whether I’d downloaded the right document, as it states that we’re “at the start of the internet revolution” – a peculiar viewpoint for a supposedly future-focused policy. It had me wondering what the party thinks has been happening for the last 25 years since the birth of the web.

The manifesto contains some principles that are right for delivering a sound digital future, but the party comes across as out of touch with the cutting edge of digital innovation by offering a series of predictable and uninspiring (if necessary) policies. For example, the need to invest in skills to ensure there is no shortfall of next-generation coders and creatives. Yet there’s no mention of updating those skills, or even trying to nurture a skillset within the population that’s more adaptive to changing digital needs.

More required than just a connection

The need to plug holes in the UK’s broadband infrastructure and fill in the mobile phone coverage “not spots” is obvious, but is no different from other parties’ aims including the ubiquitous desire to achieve “digital inclusion”. The Conservatives take a similar line, focusing especially on ensuring libraries have free Wi-Fi on offer.

Yet in this race online, none of the parties offers much explanation of what this means beyond getting more people connected. Nor do any of them distinguish between different levels of access and the effect it has on civic participation. Getting the last 10% of people online is no guarantee they will reap the rewards. We have moved on from mere access to the internet to the need to inform how and what to do with it – a matter of digital literacy that is crucial if the internet is to provide any empowerment.

Labour’s manifesto really puts digital at the heart of government, through aims for greater efficiencies through better data sharing and use of technology across the civil service. Labour’s eggs seem to be all in one basket, yet its aspirations do not go far enough to confronting the major digital issues the public faces. In contrast, the Conservative party focuses on highlighting next generation technology: ultrafast broadband and 5G mobile networks.

Rights and data

Labour’s digital promises are found within its economic strategy, and scant attention is paid to other more wide-ranging issues that stem from the adoption of the internet into our lives. For example, the Liberal Democrats make a point of championing the need for a digital bill of rights – a proposition set out by Sir Tim Berner-Lee in 2014, and by others before and since, as necessary to ensure the internet remains a place of freedom and innovation.

It’s important that governments protect people from exploitation or other harm online, and setting forth citizens’ rights to control their own data deserves to be a major priority of any party in government. But there’s little said about data beyond that held by government – in fact most personal data on citizens is held by private companies and stored for proprietary services – something that goes without mention in Labour’s manifesto.

With an exponential growth in health data from wearable trackers produced by Apple and other tech firms, there’s a need for a framework for controlling, migrating and protecting this data across different services from different providers. No firm should be allowed to lock users, and their data, into a single platform in perpetuity. In fact the lack of attention paid to the growing mobile health market alone is glaring, but the same applies to online medical records, music collections on streaming services, or all manner of data.

Policymaking for the present

Politicians need to recognise that this isn’t the “beginning” of anything, but a mature global platform that in a little more than 10 years has reshaped most markets on the planet. Policies need to reflect what’s happening now – with the growth of the internet of things, something also absent from any party’s manifesto, the challenge will exponentially increase.

Overall, Labour’s digital manifesto doesn’t go far enough to identify what’s really at stake, nor bold enough to promise the changes required to ensure we’re best placed to reap the benefits of the digital economy.

The Lib Dem’s aspiration for a digital bill of rights is heading in the right direction but is founded in paranoia, rather than empowerment. The Conservatives are similarly focused on protecting people online, but campaign’s like the Web We Want need to be so much more, focusing on empowerment, ownership, authorship, and on the changing digital desires of our population.

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