14 June, 2017
The UKs recent election presents an opportunity to revisit an age-old debate about centralized control of the Internet by governments. Theresa May (still UK’s Prime Minister at the time of writing) is known to be a strong supporter of centralized control of digital information by the government. Society-wide surveillance of all Internet communications and redesigning regulation, as well as the technical properties of the net, are features of her policy proposals. Critics of such a position typically state that such control is technically not possible, and that any attempts in that direction will lead to other, more critical social problems beyond the claims made by the Conservatives.
UK proposes centralized Internet control
The Conservative Party election manifesto (pdf) seeks support for Internet communications control by pointing out that children using the Internet can be bullied and ‘groomed’, users may be confronted with pornography and it is too easy to commit crimes online. Additionally, they “do not believe that there should be a safe space for terrorists to be able to communicate online and will work to prevent them from having this capability […].” To achieve these ends, the Conservatives seek to weaken information security by limiting the use of encryption technologies. Also, online intermediaries would be regulated more tightly, ensuring, for example, that the content and news that is distributed is sufficiently reliable and objective, in order to defend democracy.
Policy-based evidence making
When first confronted with these ideas for Internet policy by his superiors, former UK government advisor on Internet technology, Ben Hammersley, recalls his initial reaction: “[…] my advice was laughing at them quite hard for about an hour and then writing a policy paper which told them it was nonsense.” Hammersley was soon seeking a new employer, and the UK government sought an ‘expert’ who would support their ideas. Unfortunately for the government, most credible experts on this policy area voiced their warnings in publications and parliamentary panels. Cory Doctorow, a frequent and public critic of such policies, explains the drastic consequences of weak encryption in layman’s terms. Other experts around the world also typically advise that a government should not act as an arbitrator regarding the truthfulness of media and news sources.
The Medium is the Message?
I have been a part of these political discussions around Internet and information control for many years, and have always wondered why the politicians I’d interact with could be persuaded to defend such extreme positions. Not to be cliché, but the extent of information control proposed by the Conservatives is so obviously like the well-known warnings George Orwell gave us in his book 1984, where citizens were surveilled and the government controlled the public sphere tightly. I have two conclusions: (1) They are not aware of how the technology works and therefore don’t think through the consequences of their policies.
More worrying, though, is (2) a desire to control the message online, which they cannot if they do not control the medium. Where political parties had some (or significant) influence over print and broadcast media through various means, it has become significantly more difficult to control their narrative online. My advice would be that political parties should make a serious effort to understand the benefits that Internet technology gives them to communicate and engage with their electorate, and be informed about the options for legal, technical, and ethical regulation on the harmful effects of the Internet. The academic and consulting communities stands ready to engage critically and constructively with governments around the world to make sense of the digital age!
Academic Liaison at Princeton University
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